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Posted by: thepinetree on 08/02/2017 04:43 PM Updated by: thepinetree on 08/05/2017 02:13 PM
Expires: 01/01/2022 12:00 AM

Upbeat Outlook Helps Arnold Couple Battle Rare Leukemia Into Remission

Arnold, CA...“Every night, we toast tomorrow,” says Bernie Jackson as she reaches over to pat the hand of her husband Ira. At that moment, he is in the midst of infusion therapy at the Cancer Center at Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas. Ira has been battling a rare, aggressive form of leukemia for some 10 months. It is now in remission thanks to cutting-edge treatment managed by Cancer Center Director Dr. Shiva Singhal and, thanks also, to his wife’s persistence. Dr. Singhal notes, “Ira is a brave patient and Bernie is a wonderful care giver. It is a very serious situation. He was hospitalized for nearly a week at UC Davis. There have been side effects and visits to the ER on occasion. But they are totally upbeat at all times.”

The spunky twosome live in Arnold and drive three times a week for Ira’s treatment at the Cancer Center. “I’m always following him around,” Bernie jokes. “But then that’s always been the case, even before he got sick.” Ira interjects, “Well, that’s because she’s always worried I’m getting into trouble.”

Their snappy chatter, humor and positive outlook is especially disarming once you learn he is 89 years old and she just turned 85 – they seem decades younger. “We just always try to stay happy,” she says.

Dr. Singhal is grateful that Ira and Bernie are sharing their story because patients are often reluctant to do so. She explains that Ira’s progress illustrates the vital role of the Cancer Center in the dynamics of local health care. “We want the community to know that even the most aggressive cancer treatments can be administered here close to home.”

She describes Ira’s path to remission: “His primary care physician here in the county referred Ira to me when she recognized signs of anemia and thought it might indicate a greater problem. I immediately checked his lab work and suspected something very grave.. We did a bone marrow biopsy which confirmed for me a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a rare, aggressive form of blood cancer.”

“Ira and Bernie went ahead with a planned vacation at Lake Tahoe during the days between the bone marrow biopsy and when the results were available. I consulted with a colleague, Dr. Brian Jonas at UC Davis, who also specializes in Hematology and Medical Oncology. I wanted to see if there was a clinical trial which Ira might be able to join. But none was available.”

Dr. Singhal adds, “Five years ago a patient of Ira’s age with a diagnosis of AML would most likely have been referred to hospice care. That is because the disease is usually treated with bone marrow transplant – a procedure that is not given to patients over the age of 65.”
“Fortunately, Dr. Jonas agreed to treat Ira with the combination of Decitabine and Venetoclax, which is referred to as ‘off’ clinical trial, utilizing the clinical drug data from a recent clinical trial. Dr. Jonas treated Ira initially, then he returned to Mark Twain Cancer Center for the remainder of treatment. He is now in the third of six cycles of the drug therapy.”

“It is a complicated drug regimen,” Dr. Singhal continues. “Ira is one of only two or three individuals in the 80s age group to get this treatment. We collaborate all the time with colleagues at UC Davis, Stanford and other medical centers to coordinate chemotherapy treatment for local cancer patients here in San Andreas.”

“It is remarkable that a patient who might have originally faced hospice care is in remission after ten months. I truly call it a medical miracle.”

Back in the Chemo Unit, Ira shifts to one side in his chair as the infusion pump beeps. He then picks up a big bottle of pills. “This stuff keeps me alive,” he says shaking the bottle and nodding at the pump. “We are so lucky to be able to do this close to home.”

He acknowledges, “This thing has really slowed me down.” A World War Two veteran, Ira served in Japan during the occupation. He has always been an active person and is clearly frustrated by his current lack of mobility. But he is focused on the future. “We roll with the punches and just keep enjoying life,” he smiles.

Cancer is nothing new to this dynamic couple. Bernie survived breast cancer at the age of 48. Both of them had been married over 40 years when cancer claimed the lives of their first spouses in the late 1980’s. They met when Ira moved into The Diggins Mobile Home Park in Murphys which Bernie called home for many years. He was retired from the grocery business and she operated The Dog House restaurant in Murphys. They have been married for 19 years. Between them they have 5 adult children, 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

They love to travel and have enjoyed adventures in places like Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, and even though long trips may no longer be possible – the fun continues. The couple has a time share condo at Lake Tahoe, which fits perfectly into their current schedule.

“The doctor says we can’t be any further away from here than a three hour drive,” Bernie explains. “So we hit the road whenever we can to Lake Tahoe. If we wake up feeling good and the timing is right, we’ll look at each other and say ‘Let’s go.’”

Ira looks around the Chemo Unit at the Cancer Center and says, “This place is our second home now.” We’ve been coming here since last October. It’s like a big family.”

Other patients nod in agreement as Ira and Bernie praise veteran nurses Kathie Grover, RN, and Chris Stevenson, RN, who unquestionably administer a very special brand of care. Dr. Singhal echoes that opinion. “Chris and Kathy are just great people. They create an upbeat mood, engaging patients with smiles and laughter. They operate on a personal level to connect with patients and their families – everyone usually winds up as friends.”

To illustrate that point, Chris takes a moment to tell Ira and Bernie for the first time about the winter’s night he followed them on their return trip home to Arnold to make sure they got there safely. “It was raining like heck and late in the evening when we finished Ira’s treatment,” he recalls. “We left the Center at the same time and I just wanted to make sure they were okay. One thing I learned for sure is that Bernie is a slow, very safe driver.”

Bernie responds by giving him a big hug. “See, this is what we’re talking about. These people really care about their patients.”

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