Teacher finds help battling leukemia
Friends and family of Douglas County School elementary teacher Monica Hart have organized a blood drive in her name Sunday. The blood drive will take place from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. in the parking lot of Anytime Fitness, 1352 Highway 395, in Gardnerville.
Hart is battling acute promyelocytic leukemia, which is a cancer of the white blood cells. She initially consulted a doctor in May to determine the cause of overwhelming fatigue and unexplained bruising on her arms and legs.
“After getting my blood drawn for the first time, as I was leaving the lab, I told myself I was overreacting,” Hart said. “I told myself, ‘These are just bruises.’”
After the blood panel, Hart was surprised to be diagnosed with Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), an unexplained low blood platelet count that can lead to bruising and bleeding. In spite of a steroid treatment to increase her platelet count, Hart’s symptoms persisted. She again sought medical attention and a second blood panel indicated abnormality in her white blood cells. She opted to go forward with a bone marrow biopsy in June despite the fact that her insurance hadn’t yet approved the procedure.
“I just knew that waiting was not an option for me,” Hart said. “I wanted to know and not knowing would cause me to lose more sleep.”
The results of the biopsy indicated leukemia, and Hart was diagnosed with APL. The findings did not appear in the initial blood work because APL starts in the stem cells and bone marrow.
“It’s important to listen to yourself and your body’s cues, even if test results come back normal,” said Hart’s sister, Ronica Lynch.
Hart’s doctor advised her that APL is a fast-progressing leukemia and that treatment needed to begin right away. She was immediately transported via ambulance to the comprehensive cancer treatment center at UC-Davis, where they specialize in this particular type of blood-borne leukemia. Chemotherapy began within five hours of the official diagnosis.
While in Davis, the leukemia was treated aggressively with an arsenic trioxide drip to kill the cancer cells and encourage Hart’s own blood to develop and function properly.
During treatment, Hart’s platelet count plummeted to 4,000 for nearly 48 hours. Platelets are tiny cells in the blood that form clots and stop bleeding; the normal platelet count range is 150,000-450,000. Hart received between three-four units of blood platelets per day to help her body replenish the deficiency.
Treatment was further complicated when the results following the platelet transfusions didn’t match the oncologist’s expectations. Three days of tests indicated that her already-weakened antibodies were fighting off the donated platelets, and the race was on to find a platelet donor whose antibodies matched Hart’s.
Lynch said that a potential match was located after two days of searching, and it took another two days to ship the platelet bags to Davis.
In the meantime, specialists worked furiously to uphold Hart’s treatment. While anxiously waiting for the matched platelets to arrive, Lynch recalled their favorite nurse coming in with a bag of platelets to supplement what Hart had already received.
“[The nurse] came in and announced that this might be the ‘miracle bag,’” said Lynch. And it turned out that she was right.
Incredibly, that random bag of platelets was compatible, and Hart’s platelet count started to inch upward. Her progress continued to improve once the matching units arrived, and she started making platelets on her own.
“She would not have survived without those [blood and platelet] donations,” said Lynch, and the family’s gratitude inspired the idea for a blood drive in Hart’s name.
“The intent is to say thank you, to build awareness [of blood donations and APL], and to pay it forward,” said Lynch. “People want to help so much, and this is a way to give…[Hart] received so much blood, and this is a way to replenish the supply.”
Lynch and family friend/fellow DCSD teacher Hollie Harvey are coordinating the blood drive. Jen Tune, a mother of one of Hart’s former students, offered to hold the blood drive at Anytime Fitness.
The drive is coming at the perfect time; in early July, the American Red Cross issued an emergency call for donations to address the nation’s critical shortage of blood products.
All the blood units collected at the July 29 drive will be donated in Hart’s name.
After nearly a month at the UC-Davis Cancer Center, Hart’s platelet and white blood cell counts had elevated enough for her to be released. She returned home to Gardnerville and continues to work closely with medical professionals in Reno and Davis to determine the protocol for her ongoing treatment.
Hart said, “Throughout the whole diagnosis process… when they told me I had leukemia, when I was going through treatment, never once did I cry. What has made me bawl is the outpouring of love from this community… just everyone stepping in wanting to do whatever they can.”
A public Facebook page titled “Monica’s Militia” has been established to help keep loved ones informed about Hart’s progress.
For information about the Anytime Fitness Blood Drive in honor of Hart or to schedule a donation, log on to BloodHero.com and enter sponsor code N1AFG. You may also contact organizers Hollie Harvey at 775-790-2690 or Ronica Lynch at 775-690-5223.
To find out more about the different types of blood donations, log onto redcrossblood.org.