SUMMIT, NJ – Nicholas Meola of Summit recently attended his first Cancer Survivor Celebration at Overlook Medical Center, even though he has celebrated nine birthdays since being diagnosed with cancer.
The gathering of survivors, held at Bouras Auditorium, celebrates National Cancer Survivor’s Day and is an annual tradition at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Overlook Medical Center, but this year’s event was particularly special, even for regular attendees and staff.
This year’s keynote speaker, Louis Schwartz, MD, had waged his own battle against cancer since the last celebration. Dr. Schwartz, who is chair of Radiation Oncology at Overlook Medical Center and medical director of the hospital’s CyberKnife Center, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). He’s well-known among the many cancer survivors who attend this event and even better known to the hospital staff – some might call him a legend.
Dr. Schwartz told the story of his diagnosis, treatment, a planned three-week hospital stay that became seven weeks, a weakened immune system that led to bacterial meningitis and, eventually, a successful bone marrow transplant. He told it to people who fought similar battles and understood the fear, disappointment, hope, and eventual success he experienced.
Dr. Schwartz said his cancer journey began when he went for his annual physical, which included a routine blood test, and learned his CBC (complete blood count) was abnormal, even though it had been normal a few months earlier. When the test results came in, “Our first reaction was ‘This must be a lab error,’” he said. The crowd laughed knowingly – many of them had been there, thought the same thing and, like Dr. Schwartz, were wrong. His doctor ran the test again and, when the new CBC came back it was the same. He was immediately referred to a hematologist, who conducted a bone marrow exam, which led to him being diagnosed with AML and referred to Hackensack University Medical Center, which has a bone marrow stem cell transplant program.
He went through several weeks of inpatient chemotherapy at Overlook Medical Center, underwent a repeat bone marrow exam to check the effectiveness of the chemotherapy and learned there were still leukemia cells in his bone marrow. Dr. Schwartz underwent another round of chemo and, with his immune system essentially at zero, developed an infection that was diagnosed as bacterial meningitis and was placed on antibiotics. “Fortunately the choice of antibiotics was correct or I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. His recovery from bacterial meningitis took its toll on everyone and, “I found out who my real friends were. They visited me on almost a daily basis giving me encouragement,” he said. It took a team of all types of therapists – physical, speech, occupational and “the most wonderful nurses in the world on the third floor to rehabilitate me. It was frustrating for somebody who never asked for help in his life to be dependent,” Dr. Schwartz said.
It took more than two months for Dr. Schwartz to recover from the effects of the meningitis – then it was time to prepare for his bone marrow transplant. None of his relatives were matches, but the International Bone Marrow Registry yielded five donors and Dr. Schwartz’s doctor chose a 30-year-old Israeli to be the donor and the bone marrow was flown from Israel in a first-class seat.
Dr. Schwartz said he received the bone marrow transplant on Thanksgiving Day, and stayed in the hospital, waiting for his blood count to go up.
After three weeks, he was released from the hospital, but was readmitted because he developed kidney failure from the anti-rejection drugs. After his medications were adjusted, his kidneys recovered and he was able to return home. Since then he said he has undergone two bone marrow exams which indicate he is in full remission.
Applause rang throughout the room at that news.
Dr. Schwartz went back to work on March 4, part time for a few weeks and then full time. “I am functioning as the normal Dr. Schwartz who has worked and dedicated himself to Overlook for the past 38 years,” he told the audience.
He thanked the administrators of Overlook Medical Center, nurses, doctors, his associate Joana Emmolo, MD, his friends, family and his wife, Laura, who was his advocate, and supporter throughout his ordeals.
“I’m here, you’re all here. Everything is behind us and I just wanted to show you can get rid of this thing, you can survive. I went to the brink and I’m back,” Dr. Schwartz concluded. The applause was loud and lasted a long time.
Not long after he spoke, he joined other survivors as they placed their cards showing how many birthdays they’ve celebrated since being diagnosed with cancer on the Timeline of Life – which this year extended to 30 years.