By Desirée Kettler
At the age of 13, Dave Kettler was diagnosed with a blood disorder that was later
identified as Myelofibrosis (MF). This is a chronic blood cancer in which excessive scar
tissue forms in the bone marrow and impairs its ability to produce normal blood cells.
Over time, MF takes over the bone marrow, essentially destroying the body’s blood
factory. It’s a slow denigration, so Dave was able to live a normal life. I know how normal his life was, because it was my life too. We were together for 30 years, with 28 of them as husband and wife.
My name is Desirée. Together, Dave and I had two healthy sons, demanding jobs, and all the normal routines o f life as a thriving family. Dave was an anomaly in that his MF hadn’t caused changes in lifestyle except for quarterly visits with Duke hematology doctors to monitor his MF, and an enlarging spleen. In fact, Dave’s doctors couldn’t understand why he was as healthy as he was.
They knew his greatly enlarged spleen was doing the work of the failing bone marrow
and hypothesized that this spleen take-over was indeed what kept Dave living his
normal life! Dave and I knew that one day he would need a bone marrow transplant
because the spleen could not continue in this function forever. It too would eventually
fail. So, we prepared for that inevitability and found a perfect bone marrow match in
one of Dave’s brothers. At that point, it was just a matter of time. Eventually his
monitored blood counts would help the doctors decide it was time to move forward
with the transplant. That was The Plan.
But then it happened. The journey toward Dave’s bone marrow transplant was put on
hold Thanksgiving week of 2004 when Dave called to me from across the house and I found him in a cold sweat, with severe abdominal pain. Having attended every appointment with Dave over our decades together, I knew I had to get him to the closest hospital as quickly as possible, so I promptly drove him to our local hospital. He was later transported to Duke once it was determined his MF was in part causing Dave’s pain. His hematology/oncology doctors hypothesized that Dave’s spleen had a
laceration. Within a few days, the spleen’s self-healing characteristic eliminated the threat of surgery. He was to be discharged Thanksgiving morning (such an a propos name to the day for the Kettler family).
However, late the night before, Dave’s fight with MF took a much more critical turn when he pressed the nurse call button. The start to a very hard-fought three years for Dave and our family was just beginning. An enlarged spleen meant the splenic vein was also enlarged. Instead of this vein being approximately the diameter of your little finger, it was the diameter of a golf ball. This vein ruptured, sending Dave into a horrible fight for his life when he went into an all systems failure: “code blue”. In order to save Dave’s life, the surgeon had to remove his spleen, the organ that was sustaining his normal lifestyle. Unfortunately, the interruption of blood flow from the code blue caused extensive damage throughout Dave’s body, including the organ failures associated with a code blue shut down, specifically his liver and kidneys. There was also great concern as to his neurologic function ~ would there be ANY?
Beginning with that initial emergency surgery on Thanksgiving Eve when Dave received over 200 units of blood products, to the next 15 surgeries and procedures where he received well over 320+ units of blood products, Dave continued to fight a most courageous health battle. Indeed, our family called him “The Warrior.” That battle could NOT have been waged without whole blood, platelets, and fresh frozen plasma! Without the benefit of a good “blood factory” within his own body, he had to rely on the blood products from blood banks. Each and every procedure and operation required transfusions and “the gift of life!”
I was a blood donor before I knew Dave. However, when my life was turned upside down during Dave’s 33-month battle, my resolve to give to the Red Cross became a lifelong dedication. During Dave’s 300+ inpatient days, he would not have survived that initial CRASH on Thanksgiving Eve or any of the other 15 surgeries, without the benefits of receiving blood and blood products made possible through the Red Cross. When friends and family asked what they could do to help, I always directed them to give blood or make a monetary donation to the Red Cross! They were giving Dave, and others like him, the gift of life.
The medical community at Duke University Medical Center nicknamed Dave The Miracle Man, because each of the many times he wasn’t expected to make it through the night, he did. When they thought he wouldn’t have brain function, he did. When his body experienced major atrophy, losing 80 pounds he couldn’t afford to lose anddamaging every body system, he still continued to fight. Dave couldn’t walk or talk or move, but his will to live was strong. Each goal put in front of him was met with great resolve to conquer that goal. One of his Duke doctors summed up Dave’s resolve when he said in response to my astonishment at Dave’s success after being removed from the ventilator, “He has SO MUCH to live FOR!” My eyes filled with tears at the realization that the doctors understood the richness of our life and how much that was motivating Dave. His desire to communicate through words and actions pushed him in therapies that were difficult, but he never complained. Subsequent surgeries always presented great risks. Because of Dave’s frail condition, there was always the warning he may not survive, but he did primarily because of blood products from the Red Cross. It was this combination of the gift of life and Dave’s will to live that allowed his many discharges. He returned to our life of rich experiences and life away from the hospital. Once again, he attended our youngest son’s football games over the span of several seasons. We attended our oldest son’s college graduation. Dave got to know our oldest son’s lovely lady ~ who would later become his wife. We even managed a family vacation to the west coast to welcome a new nephew into our family. Dave took every opportunity to enjoy birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and parties big and small. Not only did he cherish those opportunities to make memories, so too did his family and friends who rejoiced in his courage and resolve to get well enough to finally have that bone marrow transplant!
But in the end, the cumulative damage done to Dave’s body through the organ failures, multiple surgeries and the breakdown of his body took their toll, especially in regard to his lungs. After 2 very serious lung surgeries, his body was no longer able to heal and he was in respiratory failure. Dave began his heartfelt goodbyes with me. We talked of our life and love and he was quick to tell me I was “the best thing that had ever come into his life.” He then took time to talk to our sons about the joy and pride he had in them, saying they were “the biggest accomplishments of his life.” He urged us to go on living and loving and to find happiness. There wasn’t time to bring people to North Carolina from our home states, so Dave said good-bye to family and dearest friends by phone. One day later, after those goodbyes and surrounded by his family, our Warrior, my husband, David Charles Kettler passed away on August 8, 2007. He was 51 years young.
Throughout my life, I’ve often heard people say when referring to losing someone they love, “I wish we could have just one more day.” On that horrible Thanksgiving night in 2004, I was told Dave might only live another 15 minutes. However, through the generosity of blood donors, he lived 1,041 “more days”! He got 1,041 more days to be a loving husband, a wise and supportive father, an accomplished youngest brother, a generous uncle, a helpful brother-in-law, a caring nephew, a respected son-in-law and a cherished friend. Anonymous donors extended his life, giving him time to make everlasting memories with all of us who loved him so deeply.
Because this great gift of 1,041 days was given to us, my sons and I are blood donors. We consider it a “paying it forward” act of generosity. It is our hope that by donating blood we are giving another family the gift we were given, time with our loved one. It is for people like Dave that we continue to tell these incredible stories about the lifesaving and life changing effects your blood donations to the American Red Cross create. Give the gift of life.
To give the gift of life, visit redcrossblood.org.
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