Cancer patients receive help from ‘miracle man’

Air Force veteran and cancer survivor Steve Bulat appreciates the opportunity to mentor other cancer patients throughout their journeys.

By: Taya Ordahl .

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As a cancer survivor, Steve Bulat felt the desire to give back to others. With only an 8 percent chance of survival, he powered through his battle with his caregiver and wife of 42 years, Ella, by his side.

Bulat was approached by Roger Maris Cancer Center doctors and nurses to participate in the My Survivor Mentor program. After mentoring for one year, Bulat was named Sanford Health Foundation’s 61 for 61 Honorary Chair in 2017. He recognized the opportunity to help other fighters and felt a desire to get involved. “Instead of wondering why I got cancer, I wonder why I was saved, and that’s why I mentor others.”

My Survivor Mentor program

My Survivor Mentor is a program for Roger Maris Cancer Center patients in which they are thoughtfully matched with a survivor who experienced a situation most similar to their own. Bulat is familiar with the bone marrow transplant process, so he works with mentees who will undergo similar treatments.

For example, he received much of his treatment at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and now mentors patients who must go there. Bulat offers advice of all kinds regarding transplants, finances and lodging.

“I can’t say enough about Hope Lodge, which is free housing through the American Cancer Society,” he said.

Bulat encourages cancer patients and their caregivers to utilize the nurturing and supportive environment provided by the non-profit organization.

He stresses how Hope Lodge minimized additional stressors throughout his fight, such as housing and meals.

Impact on mentees

Bulat recognizes the impact he has on his mentees. “I’ve had people call me after we met and say, ‘You have no idea how much stress you relieved from us.” He and Ella share many things with mentees such as transportation and lodging information, enjoyable restaurants and activities they can do to pass the time in an unfamiliar place.

“We talk to them for about two hours. Ella was my caregiver and I take her along to talk with the other caregivers.” She’s also a survivor and provides additional information based on her battle with breast cancer 12 years ago. “She’s a good wing-person,” Steve Bulat said.

He accepts that not everyone wants to share their story or discuss their situation. A big part of his role is reading people and what they’re looking for in a mentor. “A lot of times they just want ears to listen to them — I don’t always say a lot.” Some people simply want the helpful information, like where to go and what to do. “And that’s OK,” he said.

Tips for cancer patients and their caregivers

Known as the “miracle man” for Sanford Health oncologist Gerald Gross, M.D., Bulat underwent a bone marrow transplant from his brother after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Gus Bulat was miraculously a 100 percent match and was happy to help.

Because of this, Steve Bulat spent only eight days in the hospital after his transplant as opposed to the usual month. Although a traumatizing experience, he and his family committed to positivity, which is something he encourages his mentees to do as well. Married for 42 years and strong in their faith, Steve and Ella Bulat shared some personal tips for those battling the fight:

  • One day at a time. Throughout his fight, Ella Bulat consistently reminded him to take each day at a time. “When you think about how many days, weeks and years it could take until you’re done, it gets very overwhelming. You just have to take it one day at a time,” she said. They both agreed their positivity remained constant by following her motto.
  • Keep a journal. Steve Bulat kept a journal from the beginning of his journey until the very end. In fact, he continues to journal in remission as he finds it useful and enjoyable to look back. “Keep a journal because you will forget,” they said. Steve and Ella Bulat said the process is so overwhelming and exhausting that you inevitably forget important things you think you’ll remember. What may not seem important or memorable at the time may be appreciated later on, which is why having a journal to look back at is useful.
  • Utilize the programs designed to help you. Hope Lodge is one of the programs that Steve and Ella Bulat utilized and appreciated during their experience. “Not worrying about hotels or meals, well, that’s just great,” he said. It relieved a great deal of stress for them, so he wants others to use and appreciate it as well.
  • Accept help and support from loved ones. Battling cancer, regardless of what type, is strenuous and overwhelming. Steve Bulat had his wife and two daughters. Having the presence of loved ones around can help ease the inevitable stress of the disease. He tries to offer any support to his mentors that he can, which is often his ears for listening.

“It’s probably a good thing this happened to us. It made us better people,” Steve Bulat said, as Ella agreed. He feels grateful he was able to beat his 8 percent chance of survival to enjoy time with his family and sleepovers with his granddaughters.

He also appreciates the ability to give back.

“When you finish talking to these people, you can see that you impact them and help them,” Steve Bulat said. He tries to keep in touch with his mentees as he thinks the program is a great addition to the Roger Maris Cancer Center. My Survivor Mentor wasn’t available during Steve’s fight, but he is confident he would have utilized it.