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Saving Grace Salina woman happy to be healthy for holiday season

Salina Journal - 12/21/2017

"Christmas came kinda early for me this year, and I am so thankful for that," said Jessica Ayleen Grace, of Salina.

Grace, who was diagnosed in April with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, underwent multiple rounds of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation as well as a bone marrow transplant. But she recently returned home to her 7-year-old son after being away for several months.

The 28-year-old said her life was "full of excitement and joy" before April 11, the first day of her new job at Land Pride, in Abilene.

Three days prior to starting the job, she started experiencing shortness of breath and numbness in her left arm.

"I was looking forward to it, but when I got there, I was working in shipping and handling and I just couldn't focus," she said. "It was terrible. Not just how I was feeling, but the fact that I had to be rushed to the hospital three hours into starting my new job."

Grace was taken to Salina Regional Health Center and then to the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City.

"When she came to us, she was very sick at that time," said Dr. Anurag Singh, a hematologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, who treated Grace.

Singh said that when Grace arrived at the facility, her white blood cell count, which is traditionally between 4,000 and 20,000, was "20-times as high - around 200,000."

"She was fatigued and had to be in ICU (intensive care unit) first for about two weeks," Singh said. "We had to work on getting her blood count under control before anything else."

Aggressive cancer

Singh said that after Grace was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, "it was very important that we move quickly.

"ALL is one of the most aggressive blood cancers. Untreated patients may die in a matter of days or weeks. It needs intensive chemotherapy treatments right away."

Grace endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

On July 12, while she was in remission, Grace received a bone marrow transplant to knock out existing bone marrow cells where the cancer had formed and to help recover blood counts, Singh said.

"In order to have the transplant, she needed a fully matched donor and she did not have any fully matched siblings," he said. "She finally ... had her transplant using a 24-year-old female donor."

In order to find a match, Singh had to search through an international donor database known as Be The Match.

"I encourage everyone who is able to sign up for the program. There are many people waiting for transplants, but cannot get one without a fully matched donor," he said. "These transplants are important. Bone marrow transplants in many blood cancers can bring about a potential cure."

Missing heartbeat

Grace was released from the Kansas City hospital in May, but she was not allowed to return to Salina. She stayed at Hope Lodge, a free facility for cancer patients during treatment.

"When I first got diagnosed, I was so scared. While at Hope Lodge, I talked with other people already going through it and it eased up my mind a lot," she said.

She stayed at Hope Lodge through October. She was not allowed to see her son, since children younger than 12 are not permitted.

"Being a single mom, I knew I had to stay positive for him. The hardest part while I was in the hospital wasn't going through the treatments, but missing him. He's my heartbeat," she said. "It was hard, because I was used to being on the go and seeing him. During the time I was in the hospital, he stayed between my parents' houses."

Her parents are divorced.

Singh said Grace's son helped push her through.

"She really loves her son more than anything else. That is what has really kept her going," he said. "She was always smiling. I liked her attitude and I think he played a big part in that."

On the mend

Grace returned to Salina in October, but she hasn't been given clearance to work.

"It's all about rebuilding her immune system. It may take several months to get back to close to normal," Singh said. "These patients are prone to getting infections. They may have to stay away from work for three to six months."

Without work, Grace said her monthly income plummeted from about $3,200 to about $1,300.

"It has really impacted my financial life. I have house payments, utilities and a $400 car note," she said.

Grace also gets blood drawn once a week - one week at Tammy Walker Cancer Center and the next in Kansas City.

"From October to November, I was driving to Kansas City every week," she said. "Now it's every other week, but the driving expenses do add up."

Additionally, since her bone marrow transplant, Grace has discovered she is allergic to peanuts and bananas, "which sucks, because I love peanut butter."

"My son messes with me all the time now. He'll eat peanut butter right out of the jar in front of me," she said, with a grin.

In remission since July 12, Grace said she's looking forward to continued improvement and enjoying the holidays.

"I'm blessed just to be alive," she said. "I will continue to be positive and know that it will all work out. I get to be around my son and my family for Christmas and at one point, I didn't think that was possible. I will cherish these moments."

 
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