By Hallie Levine, Ladies Home Journal, January 2001
Alicia Weaver was twenty-seven when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her sister saved her life-and gave her the family she’d always dreamed of.
And baby makes four: [from left] Gloria, Alicia and Eli, and Kara
|Although Alicia Weaver was busy commuting from her home in Rahway, New Jersey, to New York City to complete her master’s degree in counseling at New York University, she still managed to stay close with her sisters, Kara, then thirty, and Gloria, thirty-one.
But on June 24, 1993, Alicia had sudden chest pains and went to the emergency room.
The hospital visit triggered a chain of events that brought the tree sisters closer together than ever.
Alicia: The doctors at the hospital could find nothing wrong with me, and attributed my chest pains to a heart murmur. But the results from routine blood work revealed that my white-blood-cell count was high. I stayed in the hospital for more testing, and three days later, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a cancer of the blood. In just a second, my whole life changed: My husband, Philip, and I wanted to buy a house and have kids-something I had dreamed about since I was a little girl-but now we worried about whether I would survive.
Several specialists recommended chemotherapy, but after doing lot of research, I knew it could destroy my chances of having a baby. The doctors were baffled hat I would put this concern over my recovery. Finally, Gregory Berk, M.D., an oncologist at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, In New York City, told me that I could freeze my embryos in case the therapy made me infertile. Philip and I did that in August 1993, and then I started treatment that combined interferon, an immune-boosting therapy, and chemo.
Although the treatment stopped the progression of my cancer, it didn’t bring a full remission. So in September 1994, I decided to take the one chance that could save my life. At the tome, the only known cure for CML was a bone-marrow transplant, in which the marrow and the cancer cells it contains are destroyed by chemotherapy and replaced with healthy marrow from a donor. The procedure can have fatal complications, but now it was my only hope. My entire family was tested to see if anyone was a match, but Kara and I both had a gut feeling that she would be the one. The tests revealed that our instincts were right. Dr. Berk referred me to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the country’s top transplant center.
Kara: I flew to Seattle for preliminary tests on September 20, 1994. I was so excited. Here’s something beautiful in knowing you have the ability to save your sister. But I was also fearful: If the transplant didn’t work, would that mean I’d failed her?
Alicia: When I checked in on October 9, I couldn’t help worrying about Kara, who was in another part of the hospital having surgery to remove her bone marrow.
Kara: Alicia worried, but I wasn’t even nervous; the anesthesiologist told me I was the calmest person he’d even seen. Then, bam, I was out. The next thing I knew, my niece, Rachel, was hugging me.
Alicia: After what seemed like an eternity, a nurse wheeled Kara into my room. Although she was groggy, she managed to flash me a grin. Then the doctor started the transplant, which is somewhat like a blood transfusion. It was painful, but as I watched Kara’s bone marrow drip into my body, I felt a healing energy. My family even sang “Happy Birthday” to me – they viewed the transplant as a rebirth.
The next three weeks were a blur. I started experiencing acute graft-versus-host disease, in which immune cells from the donated tissue start rejecting the patient’s own organs. I was constantly nauseated and was given extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Meanwhile, Philip’s father was dying of cancer. Philip was always by my side, but I felt guilty that I was another problem for my husband to worry about. Finally, the hospital’s chaplain gave me valuable advice. “You can’t fight this alone,” he said. “Relax and let everybody around you love you.” Once I started accepting help from my family and friends, my health gradually began to improve.
Kara: We visited Alicia regularly after the transplant, but I’ll always remember November 4. My mother was reading my sister’s medical chart. She started clapping and said,”Alicia, your blood count is improving!” “What does that mean?” Alicia asked groggily. Mom said, “You don’t have leukemia anymore.” Alicia turned to me and murmured, “Thank you.” “For what?” I asked. For saving my life,” she answered.
Unfortunately, Alicia and I weren’t totally healthy yet. The left side of my back, where they’d removed the bone marrow, became infected and I developed a low-grade fever. Although it’s a common complication, I had to stay away from the hospital because the doctors worried that I could pass a virus to Alicia. I understood, but was upset; I felt a little left out while everyone focused on my sister.
Alicia was released from the hospital on November 9, and made outpatient visits until January 10, 1995. She needed immuno suppressive drugs for another year.
Alicia: I developed another case of chronic graft-versus-host disease and often experienced rashes. I was still battling fatigue from the transplant, but by March of the following year, I was strong enough to begin working as a career counselor.
Kara: When Alicia went back to work, I knew she’d turned a corner. I was so grateful that I had a chance to help my sister. If I found out I were a match for someone else, I’d donate again in a heartbeat.
Alicia: At my five-year remission checkup, doctors pronounced me cancer-free, but they also had devastating news: the chemo had made me infertile. I could be artificially inseminated with my embryos I had frozen before chemotherapy, but Dr. Berk strongly recommended against it. Experts don’t know why, but pregnancy can cause a relapse of CML. For years, the dream of having children had helped me through the pain of treatment and now that hope was gone.
Philip and I started looking into adoption. Then Gloria said, “I’ll carry your child for you.” She was willing to be artificially inseminated with one of my frozen embryos (which had been fertilized by Philip’s sperm), so that we could have a baby.
Gloria: Kara and I hoped Alicia would be able to carry her own baby, but we suspected that it might be too dangerous for her. I knew Alicia and Philip would be great parents, which made my decision that much easier.
Alicia: My first instinct was to refuse-it was too much to ask. But Gloria persisted. I’ll never forget the day she came to me crying and said, “Let me give you this gift, please.” She was so sincere that my reservations vanished. We decided to try it once. If it didn’t work, Philip and I would adopt.
Gloria: I knew I’d made the right choice, but I still had some anxious moments. My daughter, Rachel, then ten, had just had surgery to reconstruct her chest cavity (A follow-up operation to her open-heart surgery years ago, and as a divorced single mom, I wondered if I was taking on too much. But I never go back on my word.
Doctors implanted three embryos into Gloria’s uterus. Two weeks later, Gloria, Alicia and Philip found out the procedure was a success.
Gloria: The implantation was the only part of the pregnancy that went smoothly. I had morning sickness for months! While I was moaning, Alicia kept saying, “I wish it were me!” The baby also decided to site on my sciatic nerve the last two months of the pregnancy, causing excruciating back pain.
Alicia: I have to admit, I worried that the baby would be more attached to Gloria than to me. But I was also constantly amazed as her belly grew.
Gloria: I could tell how badly Alicia wanted to carry Eli. When I called her to tell her about his first kicks, I heard her choke up over the phone.
Alicia: We had one other hurdle during the pregnancy. The State of New Jersey gave legal rights to the birth mother. So, although I was the biological mother, I would have to adopt my own child. But Gloria and I hired Melissa Brisman, a lawyer in Montvale, New Jersey, and we fought the law and won. We set a precedent in New Jersey: My name would be on the baby’s birth certificate.
After that, I couldn’t wait for the baby to come. Gloria decided to induce birth on April 13, 2000. I grew more nervous as that day approached. Although the chance of complications was small, what if something happened to my sister? As it turned out, it was a difficult birth. Gloria was in labor for twelve hours and eventually had a cesarean section. I held her hand the entire time.
Finally, I looked up and saw the doctor holding my son, Eli. When I held him, it was like no other feeling in the world. I’d been around other babies, so I thought I would know what it felt like, but this was incredible. I knew right away that he was my child. I felt a warm rush of love that was almost painful. Any worries I had about us bonding vanished.
Gloria: After the birth, I had no regrets. I liked holding Eli, but I took more pleasure in seeing the love on my sister’s face. She’d waited her whole life for this moment, and I was thrilled to be able to give it to her.
People ask me if I feel a special bond with Eli. Surprisingly, I don’t. I do want to cuddle him, but I feel that way about every baby I see. I thought Eli would recognize my voice, but he doesn’t respond to me the way he does to Alicia.
I saw Eli’s birth as a new beginning for our family. Rachel is health, Eli is healthy, Alicia is healthy. I believe God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and we’ve had enough. Now we can just focus on being a healthy, happy family.
Alicia: I still look at Eli and marvel that he’s mine. Every day I think of how lucky I am to have such a miracle in my life. I’m also thankful to have had such a wonderful support network-my family and my husband. Kara and Gloria gave me my life and my child. Every sister should be so lucky.
For more information on cancer treatments, call the National Cancer Institute at 800-422-6237. To volunteer to be a bone-marrow donor, call the National Marrow Donor Program at 800-627-7692
Hallie Levine is a reporter for The New York Post.