Beth Maracotta’s outlook was rosy.
After beating stage I breast cancer in 2014, she and her fiancé built and moved into their dream home. They planned to marry in January 2017, with a big celebration to follow that summer.
Her life changed on Dec. 14, 2016, when a swollen lymph node in Maracotta’s groin turned out to be acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This form of leukemia is extremely serious and can worsen rapidly if not treated right away.
“The news was devastating,” Maracotta said. “To have the happiest time in my life disrupted by this life-threatening diagnosis was like having the rug pulled out from under me.”
Luckily, the new cancer was caught early during a routine breast cancer follow-up appointment. Maracotta was referred to University of Minnesota Health Hematologist/Oncologist Shernan Holtan, MD. Her holiday travel and wedding celebration planning were quickly shelved, replaced with scans, second-opinion physician consultations and treatment preparations. All of the experts she met recommended that she seek treatment at University of Minnesota Health, a world leader in blood and marrow transplant.
This year, the University of Minnesota celebrates the 50th anniversary of the world’s first successful matched, related donor bone marrow transplant—which was performed in 1968 at University of Minnesota Medical Center by Robert Good, MD. Since then, the institution has performed nearly 8,000 blood and marrow transplants for the treatment of various blood cancers, including the transplant that saved Maracotta’s life.
For decades, our blood and marrow transplant program has been a world leader in treatment innovation and patient care. That expertise is bolstered by our physicians and a robust team of advanced practice providers.
A team of roughly one dozen nurse practitioners and physician assistants fill the day-to-day roles that usually fall to resident physicians in other academic medical centers.
“Our approach provides continuity for the patients,” said Physician Assistant Mary Nick, PA-C. “We’re on the floor caring for patients for a month or two at a time. As a result, we really get to know the patients –like Beth—and their families. You’re involved in what they’re going through.”
Having a trusted relationship with her advanced practice providers was especially important for Maracotta, who had a long and bumpy road. Shortly after Christmas in 2016, Maracotta went into the hospital to begin her journey. The first step was treatment with high doses of chemotherapy to kill the cancerous cells. She spent about a month in the hospital during this first phase.
“While that time in the hospital was awful, the people who were taking care of me were just amazing,” Maracotta said. I’ll never forget my first nurse, Sarah, on my first day of induction. Being hooked up to chemo is very frightening. She kneeled next to my bed, held my hand and talked to me. She gave me so much reassurance. It was extraordinary.”
Following chemotherapy, Maracotta underwent minimally invasive thyroid surgery to remove a potentially cancerous mass. After doctors determined the mass wasn’t malignant, Maracotta received a bone marrow transplant on March 20, 2017.
Maracotta battled a number of challenges and setbacks during her treatment, including infections due to her compromised immune system. Even more worrying, her first transplant wasn’t successful.
“There were times when I didn’t expect to ever make it back home, to my husband, our family and our beautiful new dream house,” Maracotta said.
That’s where M Health’s unmatched expertise became critically important. The team, led by Hematologist/Oncologist Claudio Brunstein, MD, Hematologist Arne Slungaard, MD and Hematologist Daniel Weisdorf, MD, evaluated options, discussing them with Maracotta and her family. Maracotta’s daughter, 20 years old at the time, was a half-match. She donated bone marrow to her mother on May 5, 2017. This time, it succeeded.
Finally, in June of 2017, Maracotta’s white cell count was high enough that she was cleared to go home. A rebounding white cell count meant that her body’s immune system was coming back to life after the transplant.
When Maracotta first got home, recovery was slow. Formerly fit and active, she had lost 30 pounds and needed to get her strength back. Slowly, Maracotta began to unpack boxes and enjoy being home again. In addition to settling into a new house, she has been able to travel. Maracotta has made trips to visit family in the United States, and was able to make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy while her daughter was studying abroad.
Her fitness has rebounded as well. This summer, she plans to run her first 5K since her diagnosis. The race is a University of Minnesota fundraiser, “Marrow on the Move,” which supports the fight against life-threatening blood diseases. Most exciting of all: that wedding celebration that was canceled? It’s back on, one year to the day after it was originally scheduled.