Bone marrow transplant gives leukemia patient Doug Wilson new life

Doug Wilson

“Your white blood cell count is high. You have leukemia and there is no cure.” Doug Wilson was stunned when he heard his family doctor’s diagnosis in August 2013.  

Weeks later, Doug met doctors at the Hematology and Thrombosis Clinic at The Ottawa Hospital’s. He had developed an internal disorder and couldn’t eat. Unable to keep food down, he quickly dropped from 230 to 164 pounds. He needed an IV for food and rehydration. 

A multi-discipline team, including hematologists, dieticians, surgeons and urologists finally deduced that his extreme gastro intestinal issues had been caused by the leukemia. He was put on a chemotherapy regime with a drug called Vidaza. A more aggressive treatment option was out of reach. 

“I believed I was too sick and getting too old to be considered for a bone marrow transplant,” said the retired air force officer. “And the Vidaza was working.” Doug was gaining weight once again. 

Then, hematologist Dr. Natasha Kekre told Doug the drug’s average effectiveness was 23 months. His cancer would then get progressively worse. 

“But, she told me that even though I had turned 70, the fact that I had gained 30 pounds in the year I was on Vidaza and I was fairly healthy, she was willing to support me for a bone marrow transplant,” said Doug. “It was a turning point.” 

A bone marrow transplant meant Doug would have aggressive chemotherapy to wipe out his immune system. The stem cells in the new bone marrow, from a donor, would replace his old immune system, potentially resulting in the leukemia being wiped out. If the transplant wasn’t successful, there were no more options. Dr. Kekre, however, was confident. In February 2016, Doug was added to a stem cell marrow waiting list. 

There is a network of 23 million stem cell bone marrow donors in 70 registries around the world. However, people often wait over a year for a donor match. Doug got lucky. Three months later, he had a match, and started chemotherapy in preparation for the transplant. 

At the time, Stuntman Stu was in the news because he was also going through a bone marrow transplant. His #StuStrong campaign was raising awareness and funds for leukemia and stem cell research at The Ottawa Hospital 

“I used to run into Stu at appointments and see how he was doing—see how we were doing,” said Doug. “It really helps knowing you’re not alone in this thing.” 

The Ottawa Hospital is the only hospital in Ontario that does out-patient stem cell bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia. All the assessments and treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy, and the transplant itself are carried out at the hospital during the day, which means patients like Doug can sleep at home at night. 

Doug and Darlene Wilson

Doug had his transplant on June 24, 2016, and went home afterwards. Unfortunately, that night he developed an infection, which became a sepsis in his left knee. The Arnprior resident was rushed to Emergency at the General Campus for surgery to clean out the infection.  Then he began his recovery from both the transplant and the sepsis. Things began looking brighter. After a year of regular appointments with doctors, he was pronounced cancer free—no more leukemia.  

“It’s outstanding to me the care I received. First of all, I must’ve had 20 to 25 doctors in different disciplines—more than a dozen on the bone marrow team alone. I have nothing but great things to say about every one of them and their support teams.” 

Doug is grateful to have been given a second chance at life thanks to The Ottawa Hospital. He is now looking forward to golfing this summer and travelling more with his wife. They are also both hoping to find out who his bone marrow donor is.  

“I don’t know anything about my donor, whether they are from Canada, or somewhere else in the world.  But it’s always in the back of my mind – who is responsible for this new lease on life? My wife and I hope we get the opportunity to thank them.” 

The Ottawa Hospital is fundraising to establish an innovative research chair position in Advanced Stem Cell Therapy in order to facilitate better treatment options for patients with leukemia or with untreatable and incurable diseases.