Dan’s Survival Story
March 16, 1997
JOHN KEILMAN, Staff Writer
Daniel MacLeod scarcely recognizes the bedridden man staring back from a 2-yearold photo. The man’s head is shaved, his skin pale, his eyes as dark and empty as a shadow. The man is dying. The man is Daniel MacLeod.
In the summer of 1994, Mr. MacLeod, a burly Millersville electrician, began to suffer agonizing pain in his neck, back and hips. At first, doctors blamed a virus. But after Mr. MacLeod went numb from the waist down, a medical test revealed the true culprit: a finger-thick cancerous tumor hugging most of his spinal cord.
Thus began a struggle few expected Mr. MacLeod to survive. At one point, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital told his wife he had a 5 percent chance to live. “What they’re really saying is there’s really no chance,” said Suzanne MacLeod. “It’s the lowest they can get without telling you there’s no hope.” For the next several months, as wave after wave of life-threatening illnesses swept over Mr. MacLeod, the doctors’ pessimism seemed warranted. Friends simultaneously prayed for him and planned his funeral.
Yet for reasons that defy clear explanation, Mr. MacLeod emerged from the edge of death, scarred but intact. His doctors call it amazing. He calls it a miracle. “I’m just very, very grateful,” he said. “I was supposed to be dead and I’m alive.”
A BRUTAL CANCER
The villain of this story is non Hodgkins lymphoma, a common form of cancer that invaded Mr. MacLeod’s body with uncommon brutality. It grew slowly in the space between his vertebrae and his spinal cord. As it pressed against the cord, it caused pain so intense that powerful muscle relaxers had no effect. Mr. MacLeod worked through the pain, even when it got so bad he couldn’t sleep. But one morning, he couldn’t feel his legs when he awoke. He had to drag himself down his hallway to a phone.
Within minutes, an ambulance whisked him to North Arundel Hospital, where he learned the awful truth. No one can say precisely what causes this form of cancer, but Mr. MacLeod did not seem to be a likely victim. Scientists have linked non-Hodgkins lymphoma to genetic predisposition, radiation exposure and hair dyes. None applied to Mr. MacLeod. After the diagnosis, he was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where surgeons sawed open the tops of his vertebrae to remove the tumor. It had grown so large it threatened to sever his spinal cord. His doctors thought it was too late for the usual cancer regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. And so, a month-and-a-half later, he underwent a bone-marrow transplant. Bone marrow produces disease fighting white blood cells, but in Mr. MacLeod’s case, the cells were malformed and growing out of control. They were the raw material that formed the tumor. For the transplant, doctors took some marrow from Mr. MacLeod’s body and destroyed the rest with high doses of radiation and drugs. They cleansed the cancer from the marrow they saved and put it back.
The disease was gone. But Mr. MacLeod’s troubles were only starting. The infections after a bone-marrow transplant, it takes four to six weeks for a patient’s white blood cell level to return to normal. But 10 days after Mr. MacLeod’s operation, a virus overwhelmed his weak defenses. He developed pneumonia, and his lungs grew painfully inflamed. Doctors put him on morphine and antibiotics, and hoped for the best.
Dr. Stephen Noga, one of Mr. MacLeod’s physicians at Johns Hopkins, said very few people survive the virus after a bone marrow transplant. “It’s fairly fatal,” he said. Somehow, though, Mr. MacLeod began to improve. But just when it seemed the worst had passed, he crashed. He was wracked with 104 degree fevers and delirium. John Odean, pastor at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Millersville, is a longtime friend of the family. He remembers visiting Mr. MacLeod during the depths of his illness. As he sang a hymn, he noticed his friend’s lips moving. To his amazement, Mr. MacLeod, delirious and barely conscious, was singing harmony. “I just wept,” Mr. Odean said. “Here he was, unaware of what he was doing, and out of his heart, he just kept worshipping the Lord.”
At last, doctors determined that Mr. MacLeod’s heart had become infected. However, he was so weak that surgery was certain to kill him. A new course of drugs was scarcely better. Dr. Noga gave him a 5 percent chance of survival. “When I said 5 percent I was being gracious,” Dr. Noga said. “If I wanted to tell him the truth, I was going to say, `You’re almost certainly going to die.’ “But he said, `Five percent, OK, let’s go for it.”’
A NEW LIFE
That tiny crack in the odds was all Mr. MacLeod needed. Within two weeks, the drugs had beaten back the infection, and he began to recover his strength. But there was one final hurdle to overcome. The antibiotics that restored Mr. MacLeod’s life also destroyed his hearing. With his balance thrown off, it took three months of rehabilitation before he relearned how to walk. When he finally came home, his wife had to follow him around the house to make sure he didn’t topple over. She communicated with him by writing on note pads. This time, technology came to the rescue. Surgeons implanted a tiny electrical device in Mr. MacLeod’s ear that translates a microphone’s signal into sounds. On June 13, doctors switched it on. “Suzanne’s voice sounded like a robotic martian when it was first turned on,” he said. “But then, I hadn’t heard a human voice in a year-and-a-half.” The cancer has been gone for almost 2 years now. Doctors will pronounce him cured if he survives another 2 without a relapse.
Dr. Noga says it is astounding that Mr. MacLeod lived, and even more so that he emerged relatively healthy. For a scientist like him, it was a refreshing reminder that sometimes, the laws of probability don’t mean a thing. “I, like my colleagues, thought he was going to die,” he said. “You can’t underestimate the human spirit.” That man in the photo now seems like a total stranger. Mr. MacLeod is embracing his new life, taking business and computer courses and training to become a minister. Every day, he said, seems like a fresh gift. “When I see a flower, I look at it so differently,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning, I’m so thankful. Things mean so much more to me. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s a miracle.”
Ellen M. Scarano
Editorial Asst.+ Home & Garden writer
The Capital 2000 Capital Drive Annapolis, MD 21401
phone: 410-280-5969 x3502 fax: 410-280-5953