• Cancer

    Sharing Mayo Clinic: Helping others after a stem cell transplant

For more than a decade, leukemia has been part of Kim DeBolt's life. Although the diagnosis brought with it dozens of chemotherapy sessions and two stem cell transplants, her care at Mayo Clinic also put her on the path to a fulfilling career.

It was a quiet, rainy morning in 2002 at the Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester, Minnesota. Kim DeBolt was staying at the hospitality house while recovering from a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic to treat acute myelogenous leukemia. Family members were often with her at the house, but Kim was alone that day, and she felt blue. Gazing out her window, she saw on the sidewalk a smartly dressed woman, briefcase in hand, holding an umbrella, heading downtown.

"As I watched her walk by, I thought, 'I want to do that, too. I want to have a normal day, get up in the morning and walk to work. And I want to work for Mayo Clinic,'" Kim says. "I never forgot that moment. I kept it in the back of my mind for a long time."

Four years later, Kim fulfilled that ambition.

"I'm so glad to be in the place that helped me so much and helps so many people not just live longer but have joy in their lives again," she says. "I'm proud to work for Mayo Clinic."

Although she achieved what she set out to do, Kim's path to her new workplace and to renewed health was filled with obstacles. Even now, she needs regular checkups to keep an eye on her condition. But she's been able to move forward with the support and encouragement of her care team at Mayo Clinic.

A life-changing diagnosis

Kim's journey with leukemia began more than a year before that rainy morning at the Transplant House. In the summer of 2000, Kim was 37, working as an administrative assistant for a frozen food company, and living with her two children in the town of Marshall, Minnesota — located in the southwest corner of the state. She was getting ready for a big transition in her family life as her oldest prepared to go to college that fall.

But health concerns started to crowd out the excitement. Kim suffered from persistent, severe headaches. She felt fatigued and weak. She had several evaluations with her primary care physician and visited a chiropractor regularly. Nothing seemed to help. Finally, her chiropractor recommended she have blood tests to see if they would reveal anything. Kim followed through on that suggestion. The findings from those tests changed her life.

"As soon as they got the results, my doctors sent me to a hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota," Kim says. "My mom and a friend drove me over there. When we arrived, I was so weak I couldn't walk from the car to the door. They had to get me a wheelchair."

"As I watched her walk by, I thought, 'I want to do that, too. I want to have a normal day, get up in the morning and walk to work. And I want to work for Mayo Clinic,'" says Kim DeBolt.

Kim was admitted to the hospital. There, physicians diagnosed her with acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML. The condition is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made. Because it can be aggressive and often progresses quickly, Kim needed to start treatment right away. As she considered her options, Kim knew how she wanted to proceed.

"My family and friends really wanted me to go to Mayo Clinic," she says. "I was all for it. I had a previous surgery at Mayo Clinic, and I knew what it was like. That's where I wanted to be."

The appointments were arranged, but Kim had to tackle another problem. She was too sick to make the three-and-a-half hour drive from Sioux Falls to Rochester in an ambulance. So the Mayo One Airplane came to pick her up and take her to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus.

A goal achieved

Soon after she arrived at Mayo Clinic, Kim met Mark Litzow, M.D., a hematologist who would help direct Kim's care for years to come.

"Dr. Litzow has been my doctor since I was brought here on the airplane. I think very highly of him," Kim says. "And while he's in charge of my case, I know that because I'm at Mayo Clinic, he's not making all the decisions by himself. He's consulting with colleagues and sometimes experts from other places, too. I feel like I'm getting the best care in the world."

To treat her condition, Kim went through five rounds of high-dose chemotherapy over the course of 11 months. After that, she returned home and went back to work. But the normalcy was short-lived. In December 2001, the cancer came back. Her care team recommended a stem cell transplant.

Fortunately, one of Kim's family members was a perfect match to be her donor, and she underwent the procedure on Feb. 14, 2002. Although she had to overcome several complications following the transplant, including graft-versus-host disease, that fall, Kim was again able to resume life with her children in Marshall. That's how things remained for the next four years. In the summer of 2006, after her daughter graduated from high school, Kim saw an opportunity.

"I loved the idea of working for Mayo Clinic and living in Rochester," she says. "With my daughter going off to college, I decided it was time to make that happen."

Kim applied for several jobs and got two interviews. She received an offer to work in Mayo Clinic's Department of Information Technology. She accepted, moved to Rochester, and started her new job on Nov. 13, 2006.

"It was a great move for me," Kim says. "I like the community. I met my husband here. I like the people I work with, and I love Mayo Clinic."

Another hurdle overcome

Although she required periodic checkups to monitor for leukemia, Kim was happy to be working for Mayo Clinic and content in Rochester. Her daily life settled into comfortable routines and moved forward smoothly. She became a volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester. In 2011, she transferred to a new position and began working in Mayo Clinic Administration. In 2013, Kim was thrilled to welcome a granddaughter to her family.

Then, in 2014, Kim noticed some odd bumps on her skin. At first, she didn't think much of them. When she visited one of her health care providers for an appointment unrelated to her leukemia, Kim pointed out the bumps and asked if she should have them checked out. The physician didn't hesitate. The answer was a definitive "yes." That triggered another round of intense medical care.

Kim's leukemia had come back. This time it was in the form of an unusual strain of the disease called leukemia cutis, which affects the skin. Throughout 2014, Kim had chemotherapy and took a variety of medications to battle the recurrence. That helped for a while, but it wasn't enough. Dr. Litzow recommended another stem cell transplant.

"It hasn't been easy. But throughout it all, my team has always been there for me. The support I've received has been great," says Kim DeBolt.

"That was tough because I knew what was coming," Kim says. "Other than the spots on my skin, I felt fine. I didn't want to feel bad again with the chemo, and I really didn't want to deal with a transplant again. I just wanted to spend time more time with my granddaughter and enjoy life with my family doing normal things, not medical things. But I knew that wasn't realistic."

On May 9, 2016, Kim had her second stem cell transplant, with the same donor stepping up again to provide the cells. Recovery took some time, but the transplant did its job and wiped out the cancer. Since then, Kim has had monthly blood tests to check that her leukemia remains in remission. She knows there's always a chance the cancer could return, but Kim is confident in her Mayo Clinic health care providers and the choices she's made.

"It hasn't been easy. But throughout it all, my team has always been there for me. The support I've received has been great. I've had lots of questions over the years, and all the doctors, nurses and everyone on the team have been so helpful, caring and compassionate," she says. "And going through this most recent transplant has made me even happier that I'm part of the team at Mayo Clinic. It feels really good to be working here."



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