Ray and Michelle Reuter share more than the bond that links father and daughter. They are tied by an appreciation of life’s fragility and a complex, highly choreographed medical treatment that offered each of them new hope.
Michelle Reuter, left, and her father, Ray Reuter, at City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion in April (Photo by Wayne Lewis)
Through the pair’s perseverance, the support of family and friends and the care of their City of Hope medical teams, two hematopoietic stem cell transplants performed more than a decade apart rescued a future for both of them.
A mystery illness
Ray Reuter’s medical mystery began in 1992, when persistent flu-like symptoms worsened into a condition resembling tuberculosis. Physicians near his home at the time in Cerritos, Calif., helped him feel better, but the cause of his illness evaded them.
“Then during one visit, my doctor got results from a bone marrow biopsy and told me, ‘You need to go to City of Hope,’” said Ray Reuter, now a resident of Prescott, Ariz.
Tests in 1998 revealed he suffered from myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition in which blood stem cells fail to mature properly and these cells begin crowding out healthy blood and immune system cells.
By early 2000, his condition had worsened, and his City of Hope doctor told him he needed hematopoietic cell transplantation, or HCT, to survive. HCT reboots the blood and immune system with an infusion of healthy blood stem cells.
After rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, he received donated stem cells from his sister. His wife, Lynne, saw him through treatment and recovery, and her parents helped care for their young son.
More than a decade later, he remains grateful for his care — and for what he would have missed if the disease had taken his life.
“It gave my wife and me the opportunity to raise our son, and since then, we’ve adopted another boy,” he said. “I was given the opportunity to go and experience life to its fullest again. That’s a gift.”
In the years following Ray Reuter’s HCT, his daughter, Michelle, began feeling sick.
Her serious health challenges started after she narrowly escaped being a casualty of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A quirk of chance kept her from being inside a building attached to the World Trade Center in New York that morning. Instead, she was two blocks away when the first tower fell, covering her in dust.
After returning to Southern California in late 2002, she contracted one bacterial or viral infection after another. She was in and out of different hospitals for eight years before a diagnosis finally came.
Michelle Reuter found that she was battling an extremely rare condition: Her body failed to make natural killer cells, white blood cells that serve as the body’s first line of defense against disease.
“My doctor said he knows of two or three other cases in the world,” she said. “The research they had showed that a transplant was really the only way to fix it.”
In January, she began the HCT regimen at City of Hope, where the medical team, lacking a related donor, infused her with matching stem cells from donated umbilical cord blood.
Although her road to recovery has held its obstacles, Michelle Reuter has met them with humor and a good attitude. Her spirits were bolstered by her mother, Betty Eichwald, and her partner, Debbie Zsarko, who watched over her every day. Visits from her father, stepfather and friends also helped get her through.
Said Michelle Reuter: “I couldn’t have got through this without their support.”