In the fall of 2004, Don Trent, a mechanical engineer for a commercial airline and a pilot since he was 16, learned the true meaning of “life takes a detour.” He was living a hectic but happy life — working in a career that he loved, taking graduate courses, and spending time with his wife and two daughters. He maintained a healthy, active lifestyle, running and walking every day for exercise.
In October, Don noticed a small lump on his scalp, which increased in numbers over time. He eventually went to a surgeon to have them removed, who in turn sent tissue samples to the lab for evaluation. Don was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that progresses rapidly and creates too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.
Don spent most of 2005 receiving chemotherapy at Hillman Cancer Center under the care of Dennis J. Meisner, MD, FACP, medical oncologist, UPMC CancerCenter. After physically and mentally demanding treatments, Don returned to work in late November, and began to regain his stamina and strength.
In November 2007, Don relapsed. His next option was to undergo a stem cell transplant. Don prepared for the transplant under the care of Mounzer A. Agha, MD, clinical director, Stem Cell Transplantation Program and director, Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC CancerCenter. Although it was admittedly a scary decision, Don was grateful for his physician’s guidance and support.
“Dr. Agha discussed the risks and benefits of the process and procedures. He straightforwardly explained what I was facing, and I decided to go for it,” said Don.
The search for a donor began, starting with Don’s siblings. They underwent HLA testing, in which their blood was tested to determine if they were compatible. Fortunately, his brother, Larry Trent, was a match.
In February 2008, Don received high doses of chemotherapy at UPMC Shadyside in preparation for his allogeneic stem cell transplant. On February 19, he received his transplant from Larry.
“My brother and I have always had a good relationship, but it is even more special now post-transplant. I am forever grateful and honored that God chose my brother to give me a second chance at life,” said Don.
After the transplant, the stem cell staff continued to care for Don, testing his blood to track progress and make sure his immune system recovered. Although recovery was long, little by little he made progress.
He tried to remain positive with the help of his family, friends, faith, and cancer care team. In 2009, Don returned to work, restoring a sense of normalcy in his life.
“I have a first-hand understanding of the trials and struggles one goes through during a critical illness, and profound respect for all the caregivers who provide that much-needed lifeline of support,” said Don. “I know that life will never be the same again, but I embrace the ‘new life’ with which I have been blessed and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”
More than five years after his transplant, Don is doing well. He is exercising regularly, and took up skiing with his daughters, a new hobby. In 2011, Don returned to flying — his passion — with family and friends.
“I would like to encourage anyone facing a critical illness to surround themselves with family, friends, and the new friends you meet as you go through your treatments. Even when you don’t want to, make yourself get up every morning, put your feet on the floor, and determine that you will not surrender to self-defeat. Do not lose hope, and hold tight to the promises of your faith.”
Read more about the Stem Cell Transplantation Program of UPMC CancerCenter, and other stories, in the latest edition of Cancer Discovery & Care Magazine.