A Bone Marrow Transplant Saved Her Life

photo credit:  Moments by Andrea Photography

Maxine Braten is a Wilton mom. Spot her at Stop & Shop or Village Market, and you’d think she’s typical, just like you or me.

But her story is anything but typical. Over three years ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia and her case turned so critical that she needed a bone marrow transplant in order to survive.

From that initial moment of diagnosis in November of 2010, she went through seven cycles of chemotherapy–one week on, three weeks off. But by June 2011, the leukemia had gotten worse; it had become AML–acute Myeloid Leukemia, which is a very aggressive cancer. The doctor said, ‘I need to get you in the hospital like yesterday, otherwise you’re going to die. Basically, you’ll be dead in two weeks.'”

She entered Stamford Hospital for 24 days to have induction chemotherapy, with the intent to reduce the number of leukemia cells and prepare her for a bone marrow transplant. Doctors started a search for a bone marrow donor that was a perfect match. Simultaneously, the minute she had been diagnosed, two friends started a bone marrow registry campaign via Gift of Life, which they called “Match for Maxine,” to get people registered on the national donor registry and hopefully find a match that way.

Maxine was fortunate enough to find three potential matches, one of whom eventually was the person who donated bone marrow to her–although she doesn’t believe they came directly from Match for Maxine. “I think I got really lucky.”

There was a slight hitch when Maxine contracted an infection so it took her three more weeks before she could enter Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York for the transplant. That too started with heavy chemotherapy to basically obliterate her immune system and then she was ready. “The transplant was in a big cylinder, and it was just a push into my central line. And that was that.”

The first 100 days after the transplant was the most crucial. The hospital wanted to ensure that she was close by during that time, no further than one hour away. Wilton was outside that permitted radius so she had to stay at the Hope Lodge, an American Cancer Society facility in Manhattan for people undergoing treatment. She had some complications in the months following the transplant, and a long recuperation. “I was out of work for a full year, thank God my boss was great about letting me come back slowly and recover. And I have recovered.”

There are some remaining minor things Maxine is still attending to because of the number of blood transfusions she had. And she certainly knows the ups and downs of the road she–and others she’s met along the way–have traveled.

“Unfortunately I saw a lot of people die. I’ve seen a few of us recover, and we’re friends and it’s great. It’s been such a huge life-changing experience. I think that it’s a good 60-70 percent science, and a good 30-40 percent luck. I truly feel I got super-duper lucky, between them finding it so quickly and being able to have it work for me.”

Maxine and the Community

I heard about Maxine when I was writing a column at Patch. Hers was the exact kind of story that I wanted to tell, to inspire as many people in the community to help her. So I wrote a column called, “Help Save a Wilton Woman’s Life.” There was an enormous outpouring of support from that column and because her story spread in different ripples–friends, family, etc., the way that kind of thing works. So many people were motivated to get on the registry.

The Match for Maxine campaign has since sponsored over 1,100 people to be added to the national bone marrow donor registry, and 31 of those have matched patients in need of donors–with six actually donating bone marrow.

“I did not know that there was this huge outpouring at the time, because I was so focused on, ‘Oh my God I have cancer, oh my God I might die. I have two small children.’ It wasn’t until later someone said, ‘A lot of people came forward,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t know it but it’s just so amazing. Such a community, I don’t even know these people, and it’s just truly amazing. People really do stand up, and it’s just amazing, and heartfelt.”

Maxine relates to the journey of “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who had the same kind of cancer as she did. “She said, ‘It doesn’t sound like enough, but you’re truly just so thankful. Thank you, I’m so grateful.’ You can’t do enough because people were saying, ‘I’ll save your life. I will stand up and save your life.’ Oh my God.”

She’s also so moved and energized by how many people the Match for Maxine circle has helped and how successful it’s been. “It’s the power circle! We are the people who are going to heal the world, we are going to save someone’s life! There is no better feeling than that. There is no better feeling.”

I have to add that Maxine’s story motivated me to get tested to join the bone marrow donation registry to be a potential donor. Late last year, I was called and told I was a potential match for a 63 year old man with leukemia. After some follow-up blood tests, I learned I am a perfect match for him. I’m on hold, depending on his health status and needs, and I am ready and willing to donate as soon as he needs it if I’m called upon. It’s pretty amazing how things work out that way.

“When I heard that I was crying,” Maxine told me.

As for her own donor, Maxine has yet to be in touch. “I know my donor is a woman. I haven’t heard from her, and I said last summer that I wanted to write her a letter. But there’s been a lot of different emotional things I’ve gone through that I never anticipated I would feel. I sat down three times to write a letter and I just couldn’t do it. It was so incredibly emotional–how do you say thank you to someone for saving your life? She doesn’t even know me. I tried, but it just overwhelmed me. I was very emotional and crying. I know I have to do it, even if it’s a short card, but I could write this woman 32,000 pages!”

Maxine has definitely contemplated much of what life means to her, and she told herself to really be aware of it. “I told myself, this happened for a reason. To take stock. God, or someone was telling me to slow down. To force me to stop. Which I literally did, for a year. I just laid there in bed, for a year, I was like, ‘Just breathe, in and out. Open and close your eyes.’ You take things for granted. Even now, I’m moving into a new house, moving furniture around, and I have to say, ‘Wait a minute. Step back, relax, look at the world.’ I look at my kids and I try really hard not to get caught up in things. Sometimes I do, but I have more of a sense to slow down, pull back, and learn the lesson.”

She keeps a reminder, actually two reminders. “I have two huge Ziploc bags of all the medications that I used to take every day. I keep them with me as a daily reminder, to say, ‘Don’t you ever forget. Do you remember where you used to be? Do you remember how important life is, every single minute of it. To love it, enjoy it, learn from it, to educate others.’ I keep it with me every day, I look at it, I get up every morning and thank whatever higher power there is that I am here, and that I get to be with my girls. This woman gave me that gift to be with my girls.”

Anna Getner’s Bone Marrow Drive:  “Just Go Do It”

Knowing how a selfless donor saved her life, Maxine is matter-of-fact when it comes to encouraging Wilton to attend Saturday’s Bone Marrow Registry Drive at Cider Mill in honor of Anna Getner, a 9-year-old Wilton girl with leukemia who needs a bone marrow donor.

“Just go do it. It’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s the easiest way to save somebody’s life.”

She also said that it may help Anna to hear from people, even those she doesn’t know.

“I saved every single card I got when I was in the hospital, and I hung them all up on the wall. For kids they have lots of different activities in the hospital, but having the cards up, it was so awesome to know that people were thinking of you. If people want to write her a card or a message and send it to her, just so that she knows she’s loved. It’s the pure thought, that people are thinking of me. It’s really nice. To know that people do care. We are all rooting for her, and to know that people are thinking of you, sending the healthy vibes, she’s got to keep thinking strong, and that will help.”

Maxine has a larger message for everyone. “Just be happy. Just be happy, because it can be gone in a blink.”