“This is home.”
That’s how Michelle Reitan describes Fargo, North Dakota. A city she was unable to live in for more than four months as she prepped for, received and recovered from a bone marrow transplant to fight leukemia.
“I really wish that a program like that would have been in Fargo, especially during COVID. It would have been nice to have my husband be able to stay at home and come and visit when it was allowed. It just would have made for a more calming environment, I think,” Reitan said.
Reitan received her transplant in Minneapolis. But now, Sanford Health is proud to bring the region’s first and only bone marrow transplant program to Fargo. Starting in September, bone marrow and stem cell transplants will happen at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center, with various types of transplants phasing in over the next 15 months:
- September 2021, autologous transplants begin. Cells are donated from the patient’s own bone marrow.
- Mid-2022, allogenic transplants begin. Cells come from a donor’s bone marrow.
- Late 2022, CAR T-cell therapy begins. Genetically modified T-cells are infused.
“Just from my experiences, I feel like my hospital stay in Fargo was better than my hospital stay in Minneapolis. … The staff here are just so unique, and the staff down there are nice — it’s just that they weren’t like the staff in Fargo. And not being able to see my family, even for a little bit, made it even harder,” said Reitan.
The long journey
Reitan’s journey started last August when she went in for her annual physical. What was supposed to be routine was anything but. Her blood tests showed she had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, and one day after those tests came back, she was inside the Roger Maris Cancer Center discussing her plan for treatment.
“I didn’t show any signs or symptoms. I was perfectly healthy and all. It was my physical. So I was a little bit in shock for quite a while, actually, trying to understand how this could be real because I didn’t feel like I was sick,” Reitan said.
Reitan started treatment in Fargo, including intense chemotherapy. She spent four weeks at Sanford.
“By about my third week, I started losing my hair and they were so kind and considerate. They brought in a razor as soon as I asked. I said, ‘I think I would rather have this in my control instead of cancer having control of me.’ So I had my best friend, Trish, have the honors of shaving my head and I actually felt a lot more liberated after that,” said Reitan.
Off to Minnesota
Then she had to leave. Her sister was a 100% match as a bone marrow donor, so on Nov. 1 she reported to the closest place she could go to get her treatment: the University of Minnesota. She would not return home until March 6.
“The good news is that we know that they are very good at what they do. Mayo is very good at what they do. So it’s not a confidence issue in what they’re doing,” said Dr. Gerald Gross, an oncologist and hematologist at Sanford Health. “But I’m thinking of it more from the patient point of view. I think it’s just the social part is just going to be so much better up here, keeping patients closer to home, whether they’re from the Fargo-Moorhead area or points north and west of here, particularly not close to the Twin Cities or Rochester.”
“When you walk through the doors at Roger Maris, you feel like you’re there for a very specific reason. They’re there to welcome you, walk you through, easing your mind, walking you through every question that you have and giving you the answers,” Reitan said.
A promising future
So far Reitan’s treatment is working. Her leukemia was found early, her bone marrow transplant was a 100% match, and she is currently in remission. She even says her journey has provided her with some positive perspective.
“I sometimes, as strange as it sounds, feel that cancer was a blessing. … I value every single day that I wake up. I value my family and I value my friends. I value the most little things in life and don’t take them for granted anymore because you just never know what the future brings.”
She also values home. A place where future patients, just like Reitan, will be able to stay for their treatment.
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