Sibling miracle

By on May 23, 2018

Thanks to his sister, Tom Sheehan has been given a second chance at life.

Living as a regular boy in a small town, he moved to Lititz with his family in 1954. Even then, he knew Lititz was the quintessential small town and a great place to grow up.

“I remember Main Street when it was a bit narrower and lined with huge shade trees from the square, and extending well past Linden Hall,” he said. “I also remember the Memorial Day parade and the Fourth of July celebrations in Lititz Springs Park.”

In 1971, he would meet his wife, Fournet, while she was employed at Sturgis Pretzel House. A Tennessee resident for the past 34 years, he’s now retired after a 30-year-plus career in sales management. But in November 2015, Tom was diagnosed with Thrombocytopenia. One month later, the diagnosis was changed to CMML2 Leukemia, a cancer that begins in blood-forming cells of bone marrow.

Once receiving the news, his reaction was one of disbelief, but he never looked back nor asked ‘Why me?’ Rather, he moved forward with whatever it took to get his health back. Although retired, getting well again became his new full-time job. Participating in a clinical trial with oral medications for the first six months, a desired goal was not reached. It was at this time that doctors discussed the option of him undergoing stem cell transplant surgery.

“This was the only option,” he said.

The National Marrow Donor Program requirements state that the recipient and donor must have at least six corresponding markers in their leukocyte antigen (HLA). The stronger the match, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome. Under normal circumstances, siblings have about a 25 percent chance of being fully matched.

         Siblings which were born and raised in Lititz, Tom Sheehan feels blessed to be alive today thanks to stem cells donated by his sister Kathy.

“At that point, there was no mention as to who would be the donor,” stated Kathleen Frederick, Sheehan’s sister. Admitted to Vanderbilt University Hospital in August of 2016, he underwent a week of around the clock chemotherapy treatments. It took him 28 days to get his blood levels back to a point where he could be released. No longer having an immune system, he was sent home to rest and gain his strength back in order to withstand the transplant scheduled for October, 2016.

Undergoing full body radiation on the morning of Oct. 19, he was transplanted with his sisters stem cells the next day.

“The thing for me was, I was 67 at the time, and thought I was too old to be a match,” Kathleen said. As a result, the recovery took about a week and a half for her to get back to her former self. “I was very tired,” she said. “All of my blood products had gone to Tom.”

When asked if she considers herself a hero, Kathleen declines.

“I merely felt like I was the piece of the puzzle that Tom’s doctors needed,” she said. “On the days he goes for check-ups and everything comes out fine, I feel like the doctors are the heroes.” This year marks a month to the year that Tom has been disease free. And while he still makes regular visits to Vanderbilt for check ups, he’s getting stronger every day and making great strides. It also won’t be long until he is off his medications completely. With his new life comes the chance to once again enjoy some of his favorite hobbies.

“I enjoy reading, target shooting and napping, but not necessarily in that order,” he joked.

But a smirk turns to seriousness as he reminds himself that each day is a new gift of hope and continued good health.

“If you are diagnosed with a cancer that can be treated or perhaps cured with a stem cell transplant, ask your doctor to look into it for you,” Sheehan said. “Remember, keep hope alive and fight like your life depends on it. Medical advancements in the treatment and cure for cancers is moving forward at a break neck pace. Do not lose hope.”

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@lnpnews.com or 717-721-4423. 

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