Reading about people’s efforts to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic, it occurred to me that I’m especially good at two things: (1) carrying on through an illness full of scary unknowns, and (2) living in isolation. And that I learned something along the way about how to come out the other side.
In August 2018, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that attacks the nervous system. In a span of months, I went from running sprints to hardly being able to stand or hold a conversation. My case was so aggressive that I decided to consider getting a bone-marrow transplant to scrub my immune system of faulty cells and potentially put my disease into full remission. Doing so would mean traveling to a hospital in Russia, because the treatment is largely unavailable to MS patients in the United States. I desperately wanted the transplant, but there was a small but serious risk that it would kill me. I am a single mother of two boys, then 5 and 8, and the breadwinner in my family. We had been struggling financially even prior to my diagnosis. How could I possibly weather being out of work for months? If something happened to me, who would care for my children?
I chose to take my chances and arrived in Moscow in late 2018. In a private hospital, chemo medications held in bags the size of body pillows—more than twice what the average cancer patient receives—were pumped into my body. The goal was to bring my white-blood-cell count to zero, after which I’d spend 12 days in isolation, and then several months in self-quarantine while my body built a new immune system—one that hopefully would be free of disease. From my bed, I watched my leukocyte count, my platelet and hemoglobin levels, drop and drop again, to almost nothing. Then the isolation door closed with a soft click.