Stem cells give new hope to AML patient
By Tom Loewy
The Register-Mail

Posted Sep 24, 2017 at 10:00 AM
GALESBURG — Bob English has a schedule.

Ursoiol, Cyclosporine and Voriconazole at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. and again at 10 p.m.

Valacyclovir and Omeprazole at 6 a.m. Finasteride, Losartan, Amplodipine, Folbic, Prednisone, Atovaquone and Cholecalciferol at 10 a.m.

Connie, Bob’s wife of 32 years, keeps track of the schedule with the help of a grid laid out on one sheet of paper.

It’s a tangible portion of Bob’s battle against acute myeloid leukemia. The schedule, however, is just a place to start — the beginning of a story about incredible coincidence, family, love and how an encounter with a stranger inspired Bob and encouraged him to seek aggressive treatment of his AML.

The couple started this story before the beginning.

“Connie didn’t remember this, but I met her a long time ago — it was in 1970 and I was engaged to my first wife,” the 72-year-old Bob said. “She introduced me to Connie one day in the drug store, and from the minute I saw her I wanted to break off my engagement.

“But then I found out Connie had a boyfriend. And so I didn’t even think I’d ever see her again.”

Bob and his first wife had two daughters — Kari and Ellen. He forged what became a long career in highway engineering and construction.

Connie, 68, married David Hare and they had three sons — Jason, Jeremy and Justin. David served as an officer in the U.S. Army.

“Here’s the really weird thing — I remember David wasn’t feeling too well,” Connie said. “It was in 1982. And they tested him and David was diagnosed with AML.

“Of course, things were very different back then. David got a few weeks of treatment — they were experimental treatments — and they seemed to work. But in April 1983 the bad cells came back. David battled and battled, but he died in August 1983.

“It was AML that killed him.”

Connie was left with three boys — and her oldest wasn’t even 10. A 1967 graduate of Costa High School, she moved back to Galesburg in September 1984.

A 1963 graduate of Corpus Christi High School, Bob was divorced in 1981. He and a few friends joined a Catholic singles group that met at the Knights of Columbus.

“I was trying to find a way to connect with other people, but I was getting tired of the group. I just wasn’t meeting anyone, I wasn’t making a connection,” Bob said.

A friend convinced him to go to one more meeting. Connie needed some convincing, too.

“I really didn’t want to go to any singles event,” Connie said. “I had three boys at home and I was busy — but a friend talked me into going. So I just went along to have a night out and see what it was all about.”

You can call what happened next coincidence or fate or divine intervention. Bob said it was love at second sight.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was sitting there, and Connie walked in the door.

“It was amazing. I had waited a long time to see her again.”

Bob and Connie married Nov. 25, 1985. They said their family — three boys, two girls, each roughly a year apart — blended “almost perfectly.”

“There isn’t much I remember about my dad,” 38-year-old Justin Hare said. “Bob came into our lives and was like a father to us. He stepped right in and I grew up admiring him a lot.”

Coincidence, or fate, or whatever you want to call it reared its head again in April 2016 when Bob was diagnosed with AML.

“I couldn’t believe it, I was just in shock, I think,” Connie said. “I couldn’t believe, 33 years after David died from AML, here was Bob with the same diagnosis.”

The onset of AML is marked when the bone marrow begins to make blasts, cells that have not yet completely matured. The blasts normally develop into white blood cells. However, in AML, the cells do not develop and are unable to ward off infections.

Connie couldn’t comprehend or calculate the odds of both her husbands developing the same disease.

“Obviously, I was worried about Bob,” Justin said. “But I was worried for my mom, too — I couldn’t imagine her losing Bob, and losing him to same thing that killed my dad.”

Connie and Bob formed a team. He did chemo treatments and drew up one-page schedules of dosage times and doctor’s visits. They held on to hope and Bob fought hard.

“It was rough,” Bob said. “I was 71 at the time and I just didn’t know how much fight my body had left.”

Then fate or coincidence or some divine intervention put Bob in touch with the man he would later come to call his “mentor.”

“I was at OSF St. Francis for chemo one afternoon and the nurse told me she knew someone I had to meet — but she couldn’t tell his name because of the healthcare laws,” Bob said.

“And then — the next afternoon, I think — a young man walked and shook my hand and sat down and started talking to me. His name was Donny Davis and he was battling the early stages of AML.”

Donny and Bob talked about their experiences.

“I remember Bob left the hospital that day and he looked at me and he said ‘That was the first hope anyone has ever given me.’ And I could tell Donny Davis had really touched my husband and had given him hope,” Connie said.

Donny gave Bob something else.

“He came into my room one day and he had his mother with him,” Bob said. “And they started talking to me about stem cell replacement and how it could help me.

“Donny went through it and he said it gave him time. He really encouraged me to seek the stem cell treatments.”

Bob and Connie approached the doctors — and were first discouraged, as his medical team thought Bob was too old to benefit from the therapy.

After his heart checked out and he proved fit, the doctors changed their minds. The therapy was a go.

“I didn’t have any donors,” Bob explained. “So I received stem cells from umbilical cords. We started with five — but it was stem cells from two different umbilical cords that finally took.”

One of the cords came from a boy in Germany who is now 5 years old. The other cells were harvested from the cord of a girl in Spain who is now 11 years old.

Bob and Connie helped clear up a misconception.

“People can donate their child’s umbilical cords for stem cells,” Connie said. “The stem cells don’t come from aborted babies. People can actually choose to donate the birth material to help others.”

Bob said he noticed one remarkable change.

“For the first 71 years of my life I had O-positive blood,” he said. “Today, I have A-positive blood. The stem cell transfusions changed my blood.”

Bob decided to keep a journal of his battle, a journal he hopes to share with others struggling to fight disease. And he took stock of his life today.

“My wife, my Connie, has been everything to me,” he said. “I couldn’t do it without her.”

Bob also wanted to take an opportunity to thank Donny Davis, who died Jan. 16.

“Donny gave me hope, and that hope gave Connie and me the strength to fight,” Bob said. “And Donny told me about stem cells. He encouraged me.

“I know I wouldn’t be alive today without the stem cell treatment — which means I wouldn’t be alive today if Donny hadn’t stopped in my room. That’s why I wanted to talk about this. I just hope others can learn and maybe get a chance to live even a little longer.”

Tom Loewy: (309) 343-7181, ext. 256;; @tomloewy