Leukemia survivor offers hope Rowan woman says bone marrow transplant saved her life

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“This is Mary Renna,” a woman said when I answered the phone. “Do you remember me?”

How do you answer that kind of question when the truth is no.

I didn’t remember her name or her voice, but she was so nice I should have — and she took care of that quickly.

“I read that story you wrote about Jacob Greene who’s going to get a bone marrow transplant from his little brother,” she said. “You wrote a story like that about me back in 1988.”

She’d had a bone marrow transplant from her sister, Ami, at the University of Iowa Medical Center in 1988, she said.

And that’s all it took for me to remember it vividly. She wasn’t going to have it done in Iowa because she and her family lived there. She was going to Iowa because that’s where it could be done.

The operation was rare then, and her doctors believed she might not live to have it done.

And it snowed. Oh, did it snow! I can still see it clearly just thinking about it.

When Mary and her parents got on the plane, deep snow had shut down Douglas Airport in Charlotte, but it had been plowed, and the plane was going to fly.

But Mary wasn’t doing as well as the weather. She was sick.

And when she read the story in the Post about little Jacob Greene, the son of Tim and Treshell Greene, she felt with them.

Now 35, she’s a resident of China Grove.

“And it reminded me of what my family had to go through, how it was for me and my family. It was like thinking I was cured, and the next thing I knew I was sick again, and if they have questions, like about the procedures and about what might happen afterwards …. Anything can happen afterwards ….

“I actually developed a vascular necrosis … ” which means the death or decay of the tissue. “It started in my left hip, and it caused a whole lot of pain. It was killing the bone.” She had surgery for that, too, but it didn’t work.

And the doctors didn’t want to replace the hip, she says, “because I was so young and would have to have it done again.

“Now they make them all steel,” and she had it done. “I’ve got a hip for a lifetime.”

But she’s also had plenty of pain — the same disease in her shoulder so a partial shoulder had to be replaced and meningitis in 1997, though that had nothing to do with cancer, “but I had to learn to eat again, and it made me lose my hearing, and that meant I had to have a cochlear implant. That works really well. I went four years with a hearing aid, and that was bad …

“I don’t go to Duke any more. I have a doctor here, and Duke is two hours away. I probably would have gotten those things anyway.

“The diagnosis was made when I was 4. I had two different bouts of leukemia. Then it was cured after three years of treatment, and I got sick again when I was in the fifth grade.

“Then I got sick again with acute lymphatic leukemia and had treatment for three years and again in the ninth grade. We had to fight” all the time.

Finally she got a bone marrow transplant from her sister.

“And it saved my life.”

But she had to go to Ireland to get it.

Duke Hospital was no longer doing them, “and I was sick, with pneumonia and mouth sores” — and she went straight from the plane to the hospital in Ireland, and when her charts came from Duke, they told her parents she had had relapses several times, and they didn’t think she’d make it because she’d had so many relapses.

“They didn’t think it was going to work, but I fooled them — and they decided they’d try to get me better.”

It was always one thing and one question after another and pre-tests before the transplant and a breathing test to make sure her lungs would handle it, “but the radiation was killing my bone marrow. There was always blood work.”

And finally at 16 she had the transplant, but the radiation was killing her bone marrow.


Should she talk about it as openly as she does?

“I hope this little boy — Jacob Greene — will get it from his little brother …

“A lot of people say I talk about it so easily, but when you hear about someone else …. Should you talk about it?”

She doesn’t know.

“My grandmother always called me her miracle child. Anybody she ran into, she had to tell them about me, and it always embarrassed me. She’d say, ‘This is my miracle … ‘

“I’m disabled now, due to my hips and my hearing, even though I still had the hip replacement after meningitis. I tire easily. They qualify me as disabled,” partially because of her hearing, even with the cochlear implant.

But she works and is proud of it.

“I babysat my sister’s kids after they were born, and now my cousin’s babies. My sister has two.”

Her cousin has only one, but she needed Mary. She’s still in the Marines.

“So I kept the first baby until she got out of the Marines. Then she had another, but about a year later after 9/11 she got called back in and she called me , so I went with her to the District of Columbia. She worked in the defense area.

“I stayed with her for six or seven months. By then the kids were 2 and 3, and I wanted to get a life for myself. I’d met a guy, and we dated on and off for five years.”

They’re not seeing each other as often now.

But she’s still babysitting, “and I’ve got a bunch of friends. I believe I’ve got a reason to be here. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a reason because there were so many reasons I could have died — t-cell leukemia, meningitis, acute lymphatic leukemia …. ”

So many reasons she could have died …

The phrase hangs in the air as though it’s looking for a beginning and an end, looking for a period.

But she’s not.

She has tried to find the reason she didn’t die.

“And I’m still looking for it.”

She’s just as sure there’s a reason Jacob Greene didn’t die and has a brother whose blood marrow is a good match, thank goodness.

And she’s sure that when Douglas Airport got all that snow moved from the runway back in 1988 so she could get to the University of Iowa Medical Center in Iowa City for a bone marrow transplant from her sister, Ami, that there was a reason. She’s 35 years old now and still here.

Still babysitting.

And loving her family.

And when she’s feeling strong she goes whenever she finds out someone needs her.

And now she’s praying everyday for Jacob Greene whose little brother’s bone marrow matches his, so he’ll be able to give him a bone marrow transplant.

Mary Renna knows what that means.

It means life.

Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or rpost@salisburypost.com.