The gift of life

Cindy Hairgrove (photo by Chris Richards)
Cindy Hairgrove (photo by Chris Richards)

Cindy Hairgrove is not the type of person who backs down from a fight.

Up until 2001, Hairgrove, a North Dakota native and Tucson resident since 1975, never had to spend much time at the doctor’s office. Outside of routine check-ups and the occasional bout with high blood pressure, this 48-year-old mother of two was the picture of health.

That was until she started experiencing nausea and abdominal pain. She thought nothing of it at first, but the symptoms weren’t going away. Just after Thanksgiving - more than a decade ago - Hairgrove paid her doctor a visit. She was not prepared for what he would have to say.

On Nov. 30, Hairgrove found out she had acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, how can this be?’” Hairgrove said. “For something like this to hit me out of the blue was simply devastating.”

She began treatment the next day. She battled through her initial induction treatments and the subsequent infections. She went into remission almost immediately, but her health continued to fluctuate.

At some points, she appeared well enough to go back home, but weeks later, a new infection or an inflated white-blood-cell count would force her back into the hospital.

Nearly one year after the initial diagnosis, Hairgrove felt healthy again. Her energy level was up and she was back to work at Arizona Community Physicians, managing six doctors and three nurses. That good feeling wouldn’t last long.

“I got this phone call from my doctor at 6 a.m. Monday morning. He told me they found new leukemia cells during my last check-up,” Hairgrove said. “That was a very dark time.”

The word “transplant” had been discussed during her first battle with AML, but now it was a reality. She was going to need a bone marrow transplant as soon as a donor could be located. She has two kids and two siblings, so she was sure she’d find a match right away.

Her son, Michael, and her daughter, Lorie, didn’t match. Neither did her sister, Jeanine. Her brother, Ritchie, was certain he’d be the match, but he wasn’t, either. Her next stop would be the National Donor Registry.

While she waited, she continued her treatments at Northwest Hospital. Two weeks later, she finally heard some good news. A matching donor was found in Jackson, Miss.

“I was so sick and fatigued at that time that I couldn’t even get excited when I heard the news,” Hairgrove said. “I thought I dreamt it at first.”

She was immediately transferred to the University of Arizona Cancer Center, where former member, Elliot Epner, MD, PhD, administered the transplant. On May 6, 2003, she underwent the life-saving procedure.

“Just before I went under, I got a look at the cells that were going to save my life,” Hairgrove said. “It was the strangest sensation. I wondered if I was going to feel any different when I woke up.”

Slowly, but surely, she did. Hairgrove spent the next three years battling. She said she felt as if her disease would take back over if she ever let up.

Where did she get the strength to fight like that every day?

“Deep down, I know I couldn’t have done this without my friends and family so close to me,” Hairgrove said. “That overwhelming support is what carried me. People I hadn’t heard from in years got back in touch. It was so humbling, and so vital to my recovery.”

One night, her pastor paid her a visit and offered her some encouraging words that served as her road map through this ordeal. “You’re going through this,” he said. “You’re not going to stay here. You’re just passing through.”

At no point did Hairgrove entertain the idea that she was going to succumb to this disease. She was going back to work. She was going to see her children graduate from college. She was going to see the birth of her grandchildren. Her life was not over.

A year after her transplant, she contacted her donor, Chad Manlove, to thank him for his selfless act. They’re still close friends to this day.

“What can you even say to someone who gave you the gift of life?” Hairgrove said.

By 2006, Andrew Yeager, MD, had taken over as Hairgrove’s primary oncologist. After years of fighting, Hairgrove was about to hear some welcome news.

“One day, Andy came in with this big smile on his face, but I didn’t think anything of it, because Andy is always smiling,” Hairgrove said. “He went over my blood work with me and said, ‘I couldn’t wish for anything better than what is written on this paper.’”

Today, Hairgove is 59 and in full remission. She’s back at work, helping to keep Arizona Community Physicians running smoothly.

“Everyone at the Cancer Center was a superhero,” Hairgrove said. “From the people who helped you in the door to the nurses to the doctors, everyone made me feel like I was going to get through this — and they were right!”

-Nick Prevenas, May 24, 2012