July 6, 2013 | by Roberta Nichols
As a veteran Ventura County firefighter, Jeff Maurer was hardwired to respond to emergencies. So, in 1995, when his captain’s 6-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, he and his colleagues mobilized and took turns donating blood on her behalf to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The day Maurer donated, he went upstairs to visit the child’s family.
A nurse interrupted their reunion, escorting him to the hallway with disturbing news: A lab tech had found an abnormality in Maurer’s blood work.
He soon discovered that the disease threatening his friend’s child was rampaging in him, as well.
His platelet counts were dangerously low, and his blood contained “blast” cells, clusters of immature white cells that could crowd out his healthy cells — and kill him.
The improbable diagnosis of acute myelogenous leukemia hit him hard — particularly since he felt fine, was a runner and had not been experiencing symptoms.
“I started thinking of all the things that I would miss in life should I not be around,” recalled Maurer, who was only 35 when he was diagnosed. He thought first of his baby daughter, Rachael, then only 8 months old.
“The realization that I may not be there as a positive influence in her life and as her dad was devastating,” he said.
“I was focused on the fact that I would be missing her birthdays, teaching her to drive, being there when she had her first heartbreak, and watching her graduate from high school. That last one really affected me in a profound way. I wanted more than anything to see her experience that momentous occasion where many kids walk through that door into adulthood. I could see every detail, and had wondered if I would be there to really see it with my own eyes.”
He met with Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, who had gone to medical school with Maurer’s father. “I quickly realized that Dr. Forman was not only an exceptional physician, but was kind, empathetic, brilliant and knew exactly what he was talking about. I had faith in this man, and felt certain that if any organization and physician could be my best chance, they were right in front of me.”
Maurer learned that unless he underwent a bone marrow transplant, his prognosis was bleak — six months to a year. As the search began for his donor, he began treatment at City of Hope.
The firefighter trained to save others now focused on saving himself. Others joined this fight of his life. He remembers the day a motor home pulled into the hospital parking lot filled with his firefighting comrades.
“I could see arms waving from the windows,” Maurer recalled. “I saw the cavalry coming to save me.”
For months, they came to the hospital to support him, donate blood and sign up on the bone marrow registry. “A few were close matches,” he said, “but in the end, it was my youngest brother, Greg, who was the best and almost perfect match. That gave me a whole new appreciation of the phrase ‘blood brothers,’” he added.
Maurer underwent chemotherapy and radiation to prepare for the transplant. He lost his hair, appetite and eventually 50 pounds, since “everything tasted like aluminum foil.” He remembers the kindness of the nurses, who kept encouraging him to eat. Finding out he liked root beer floats, one nurse improvised a concoction for him from the nurses’ pantry. “It was the very first thing that didn’t taste like I was licking the bumper of a school bus,” he recalled. The treat became a mainstay during treatment and he even enjoyed one the day he watched the bag of his brother’s lifesaving cells flow into his body.
In the early days of therapy, he tried visualization techniques, imagining the leukemia as a grotesque “menacing, lifesize amoeba with thousands of razor sharp brown teeth,” a “nefarious little creature” that was never quite out of mind even as Maurer sang his little girl to sleep.
After the bone marrow transplant from his brother in December 1995, the imagery transformed. “Tables had turned. In my mind I finally got a handle around ‘leukemia’ and mentally beat it into some sort of submission, into a size that I could grasp and squeeze into a small, cold steel box until I could figure out what to do with it and how to go forth with my life, while ending its ‘life.’”
In May 1996, only five months after the transplant, Maurer returned to work. In 2005, Maurer was diagnosed with colon cancer but was successfully treated at City of Hope.
Today, he remains in remission from both diseases and continues to enjoy good health and working as an engineer in the Ventura County Fire Department. In his spare time, he kayaks, creates metal artwork and is learning to play the guitar.
The little girl whom Maurer tried to save back in 1995 eventually underwent a successful bone marrow transplant, receiving cells from her little brother. Today, she is a healthy 21-year-old teacher in Washington, D.C.
As for his own child? “My daughter Rachael is now a beautiful 18-year-old woman,” Maurer said. During “one of the very best days of my life,” he saw her graduate from Westlake High School, and next fall will watch her embark on her sophomore year at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif, where she is majoring in broadcast journalism, and runs track for the team. She also just won the Miss Bel Air competition.
He also remains close to his family — particularly to brother Greg. “He always gets the best gifts for his birthdays, since he gave me so many more.”
We recently asked Maurer to reflect on his experience: Looking back at the time of your diagnosis, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Whether wisdom, soothing words or practical tips, what five pieces of advice would you give your newly diagnosed self?
Please be mindful that my treatment was 18 years ago, so treatment modalities have changed (and improved). New treatments have helped to ease patient discomfort from the "old days."