For Eric Thornburgh, the first sign of trouble appeared in October 2018 when the Genoa City man got sick after eating food during high school football games three Friday nights in a row.
His wife, Casey, encouraged him to visit his primary care doctor, who ordered a CT scan. It revealed a softball-sized mass in Eric’s abdomen. Doctors biopsied the mass and diagnosed Eric, 40 at the time, with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
In November 2018, the father of two entered a hospital in south central Wisconsin to begin an intensive chemotherapy regimen. When that chemotherapy did not work, Eric’s doctors started him on a second regimen. But his health began to deteriorate, and he developed five different severe infections.
On New Year’s Day 2019, doctors visited Eric and his family in his hospital room and explained that they had exhausted all treatment options. He was close to death, and the doctors asked if he wanted to die at home. Eric and Casey were stunned.
“I remember turning and looking at my parents and Casey, who were sitting on the couch, and saying, ‘You’ve got to get me out of here,’” Eric said.
His wife and parents quickly weighed their options and called the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Network to determine if Eric could be treated at one of its cancer centers. Within days, Eric was transported by ambulance to Froedtert Hospital. After stabilizing Eric, the team evaluated him to determine the most appropriate treatment approach.
Elite Blood and Marrow Transplant Team
Froedtert & MCW Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) and Cellular Therapy Program physicians are known internationally for their expertise in treating leukemia and other blood cancers.
“They were honest with us,” Casey said. “They said, ‘We don’t know if we’re going to be able to save him, but we’re sure going to try everything.” This approach reassured Eric’s family.
The team’s first goals were to tackle the infections that were making Eric so sick and to halt his tumor growth.
“He was on antibiotics, received radiation therapy for the mass in his abdomen, and was treated with a whole lot of supportive care to get him to a better place,” said Parameswaran Hari, MD, hematologist/oncologist and MCW faculty member.
Dr. Hari also began planning for the possibility that Eric would improve enough to receive a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia. When people with blood cancer are treated within the Cancer Network, their treatment is discussed by a multidisciplinary group of oncologists and blood cancer specialists who meet regularly to consider patients and develop personalized treatment plans. Some patients get the option of participating in national group clinical research or in trials available only through the Cancer Network.
Because he was gravely ill, Eric was unable to participate in clinical trials. His medical team also felt that he couldn’t wait for a fully matched, unrelated donor from the National Marrow Donor Program registry. Instead, they began testing members of Eric’s family and found that his dad, Bill, was a suitable half-match who could donate his bone marrow. Eric received his bone marrow transplant in February 2019.
Transplant and Beyond
In the days after the transplant, Eric’s body responded well to the donated bone marrow. He did so well, in fact, that his care team released him just 15 days later.
“He was home sooner than most,” Dr. Hari said.
The return home was so sudden that Eric and Casey surprised their children, Isabella and Alexander, then 12 and 10, by setting Eric up on their couch and calling the kids downstairs for a video call with their dad, a way they communicated while he was in the hospital.
“They came into the living room and saw him sitting on the couch, and it was just immediate tears,” Casey said. “They were so excited to see him here.”
Eric continues to see Dr. Hari for regular follow-up appointments. In addition to seeing patients at Froedtert Hospital, Dr. Hari sees patients with blood cancers at the Cancer Center at Moorland Reserve Health Center in New Berlin, a shorter drive for Eric and Casey.
“Through our Cancer Network, you get access to a very high-level transplant team that is one of the best,” Dr. Hari said. The program has some of the highest survival rates in the country.
Eric is now back at work and his cancer is in remission. Dr. Hari expects it to remain that way.
Casey gets emotional when talking about Eric’s treatment. “I truly believe that if the cancer team had not accepted him and taken the approach they did, Eric might not be here,” she said.