Blood transfusions are saving grace for Prescott Valley woman
For Joan Walker of Prescott Valley, the term "lifeblood" has a meaning all its own.
Time and time again throughout her life, the blood and platelet contributions from others have meant the difference between life and death.
As she battled first a complicated back surgery, then a double radical mastectomy for breast cancer, and, most recently, years of debilitating leukemia, transfusions have been Walker's lifeblood.
More than 300 times, the drip of someone else's blood has sustained her.
And through it all, Walker, 73, said she never forgot those who had made her transfusions possible.
"I would not be standing here today without those wonderful bags of red, or those golden bags of platelets," Walker told the crowd during a recent United Blood Services luncheon.
Each time, Walker said she would look up and see the red and golden bags slowly dripping above her, and say, "Thank you, special person. You are saving my life today."
Worsening health issues
Walker's experience with blood transfusions began years ago, when, as a young woman of 29, she had a back surgery and spinal fusion.
Then, at 44, she learned she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, again requiring blood transfusions.
But Walker's need for blood and platelet transfusions reached a whole new level in 2002, when at the age of 63, she learned that she had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a severe form of blood cancer. Walker estimates that her transfusions just for the leukemia topped 300.
Walker first sensed that something was wrong while she was working 10-to-12-hour days in the accounting office at Prescott's J.C. Penney, preparing for the store's move from the old Ponderosa Plaza Mall to the new Gateway Mall.
"I was so tired - a sick tired," Walker recalls. Attributing the fatigue to her long hours at work, she continued on the job until after the new store opened. At that point, Walker, who had retired four years before and was helping out at the department store on an on-call basis, said she told her supervisor that she needed some time off to rest.
With a rash, a fever, and bruising compounding her fatigue, Walker went to a doctor for blood tests and an MRI, and received the bad news: leukemia.
The first step of her treatment involved blood transfusions at Yavapai Regional Medical Center. Walker then transferred to Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, where she spent months in the summer of 2002, undergoing alternating rounds of chemotherapy and blood and platelet transfusions.
Then, she said, "My body started rejecting other people's blood." She developed painful sores on her body, and one day, she noticed blackening around her eyes. Before long, Walker said, her entire face was black, and her head was swollen.
She began throwing up blood, and her blood pressure dropped.
"That's when (doctors) thought the Lord was taking me home, and I did too," Walker said.
Ultimately, the medical team found a donor in Oregon whose blood platelets matched hers. Once again, a donation from a stranger saved her life.
Walker later transferred to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she spent another six months in treatment.
"I had more transfusions, but I did go into remission," Walker said. "I was in remission for three years."
Then, more bad news in 2006: the leukemia had returned.
This time, Walker said the only hope was a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately, her sister Deanna had already undergone testing and was a perfect match.
To prepare, Walker under went a week of constant chemotherapy, and she experienced even more infections.
"But I made it through," she said. The July 2006 transplant was a success, and Walker has been cancer-free since then.
Even so, the leukemia took its toll. Since 2006, she has had six major surgeries, including a hip replacement and two knee replacements.
Through the body sores, the boils, the constant infections, the hemorrhages, blood clots in her lungs, and issues with her heart and kidneys, Walker certainly would have been forgiven a bit of self-pity. Remarkably, she has none of it.
"I am so grateful; so grateful to be alive," she said this past week from her sunny kitchen in Prescott Valley.
Throughout the treatment, Walker said it was her faith that was her guiding light. "It was strictly through the Lord's help; I credit him for that," said Walker, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Prescott Valley.
A human face to donations
Jane Tellier, marketing and communications specialist with United Blood Services, said stories such as Walker's lend a real-life aspect to blood donations.
"It gives a new perspective to blood donors," Tellier said, noting that Walker is a living example of someone in the community who has endured and survived because of blood transfusions.
"She's really an amazing lady, and what a wonderful job she did in sharing her story," Tellier said. "Thanks to blood donors, she can spend time with her children and grandchildren and enjoy her life."
Walker and her husband Wesley have lived in Prescott Valley for 19 years, and have three daughters, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
These days, Walker said she celebrates her life by being as helpful to others as she can be. She regularly helps out at her church, and she likes to cook meals for people in need.