Every three minutes someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia. In many cases, their only hope for a cure is a bone marrow transplant. 

For APEMAN Andrew Hesselmann, just 10 weeks after his first and only child was born in 2011, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.  

“They wouldn’t let me leave the hospital,” he said. “I was there for five weeks getting chemo and trying not to let the complications that occurred at the same time kill me. I had lots of pneumonias and I ended up getting a rare and deadly infection called Mucormycosis. It ended up killing my lower lobe in my right lung and needed to have the lobe removed. That surgery almost killed me.”

The mucor also infected a disk in his lower back and he needed to have that removed, too, followed by some very powerful antibiotics for months to be sure the mucor was gone. Once he recovered from all of that, the doctors informed Andrew that he needed a bone marrow transplant in order to survive. 

For patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow or cord blood transplant may be their best or only hope for a cure. Yet 70% of patients who need a transplant to do not have a fully matched donor in their family. They, like Andrew, depend on Be The Match, the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world, and their supporters to find a match to save their life. 

“They found a very good match for me and we were very optimistic,” Andrew said. “My match was a perfect match from a young man in Germany. We did the procedure in June 2012 and I was in the hospital for four weeks, then home for a week and noticed that my skin was peeling and very itchy so I went back in the hospital for another four weeks. I had Graft-vs-Host disease (GVHD) in the skin, and it was pretty bad.”

Most of the skin on his face, head, upper back and chest was coming off. Needless to say, it was painful – lots of steroids and antirejection medication helped. After the second month-long hospitalization, Andrew was back and forth to the clinic for observation, tests and treatment for one infection after another.  

“My immune system was shot from the BMT and chemo and I just needed time to recover from all of that,” he added. “During this time, diet is very restricted for fear of ingesting a pathogen. No fresh food, no fresh vegetables, no fruit. Everything had to be processed. Not fun at all! Approximately six months after the BMT, I started having difficulty breathing. Initially, we thought it was just another pneumonia, but after tests and hospitalization it was determined that I had GVHD of the lungs. My lungs were attacked by my new immune system.” 

This is not uncommon in bone marrow transplant patients and there are no “good” treatments. Essentially, Andrew’s lungs have been scarred severely and will not get much better. In turn, this has hampered his ability to do anything physical. Going for a brisk walk is very difficult, climbing more than one flight of stairs is very difficult, and sustained exercise is nearly impossible. 

Remarkably, that hasn’t stopped Andrew from moving forward – as an athlete, husband and father. 

“My journey back to health required patience and determination,” he said. “I never thought I was going to die, even though all signs pointed in that direction. I always knew I would recover from the cancer. Chemo side effects were some of the most difficult things I had to endure; my legs felt so heavy that it felt like I was walking through tar. Absolutely no energy. One short walk was exhausting. Probably the most difficult was not being able to be there when my son turned one. I watched his birthday party from the hospital on the iPad through Skype.” 

Ultimately, what kept Andrew going was one driving thought: He wasn’t going to leave his son without a father.

“I felt I had too much to teach him and I had too much still to do in this life,” he said. “I knew I just needed to endure and get through it. Without question, if it were not for my wife, I would have been dead. She was the exact person I needed to get me through. She is insanely intelligent and understands medical terminology and how to speak to doctors. She was the best advocate I could have had.”

Andrew’s wife, Katie, amazingly kept their household going… all while raising an infant and watching her husband seemingly die before her eyes. Certainly, the years that followed were no picnic either. Andrew’s recovery from Leukemia and the bone marrow transplant took time.

“The thing that really helped me through all of this was remembering to be grateful,” Andrew said. “While in the hospital in my various stays, nurses would ask me why I was so happy. My reply was there are lots of people in this world who have it way worse than me. People are slaughtered all over the world for just having a different religion or looking different. Mothers have their children ripped from them, natural disasters destroy people’s homes, children are murdered. Me? I am a strong man in the U.S. with some of the best medical care in the world. We have a stable household and will get through this. What do I have to complain about?”

Andrew, a strength coach by trade, stumbled upon APEMAN a few years ago and fell in love with the mission. 

“APEMAN has shown me that there are others like me,” Andrew said with a smile. “Maybe not with my limitations but with their own struggles. Persevering and moving only forward. Knowing that has helped me be the best version of me I can be. Unfortunately, I can’t lift like I used to, but APEMAN has helped inspire me to do something.”

For us at APEMAN, there is no better example of “Finding Your Strong.” Thank you, Andrew. 

If you would like to learn more about becoming a bone marrow donor, text Cure04 to 61474 to register and have a kit mailed to you.