By Peter Carrels
There’s no mistaking the authentic love that connects McKenna (Eisenbeisz) Fischer to Miles Eisenbeisz. Their relationship is comfortably displayed as they discuss the medical procedures that made it possible for a daughter to donate lifesaving bone marrow stem cells to her father.
Miles Eisenbeisz had worked for 20 years as a nurse serving the residents in and around the town of Bowdle, in north central South Dakota, when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. His wife and their three children were understandably tense and worried about his grim prognosis. Cancer at age 56 seemed unfair to a man who’d devoted so much of his own life to helping others with their health problems.
Eisenbeisz’s middle child, McKenna Fischer, had not long before graduated from Northern State University in nearby Aberdeen, and was navigating the rigors and opportunities of her first year at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine when she learned about her dad’s grave illness. “An irony of this is that we were studying neurology when my dad was diagnosed,” explained Fischer. “And just two weeks later we were learning about blood disorders.”
Eisenbeisz’s white blood count had dramatically risen, and his medical team desperately searched for a blood donor. The process to benefit Eisenbeisz would involves collecting bone marrow stem cells from a donor’s blood. “My dad has a rare blood type,” Fischer reported. “It appeared that the only matches for him are several people in Brazil.” Fischer is described by health experts as a “half-match” for her dad, but recent medical advances have made such matches more viable as a means to mend conditions like the one endured by her father. The means of harvesting Fischer’s bone marrow was time consuming and uncomfortable. She was administered a preparatory medicine for five days, a painful process, and then stem cells were slowly extracted for two separate eight hour periods on consecutive days.
Down a hospital hallway from Fischer’s room in Sioux Falls her father lay in his own room waiting for the transfusion, and worried about his daughter. “I may have been the primary patient,” Eisenbeisz explained, “but I couldn’t stop being a dad.”
“They took two bags of blood from me,” remembered Fischer about her experience. “And I was able to watch them dispense the second bag to my dad.”
For three weeks Eisenbeisz remained hospitalized, under careful observation. He was also administered a round of chemotherapy. “Those first several days after the transfusion, waiting to see if the cells worked, and hoping that they would work, was a stressful time,” Fischer recalled.
The good news is that the donation and treatments appear to have been successful. “He’s getting stronger and stronger,” said Fischer.
“I feel better,” Eisenbeisz reported, as he celebrated his post procedure one-year exam. “They’re testing me, and the blood work will tell a story, but my condition seems good.”
“It’s a rewarding feeling,” Fischer emphasized, “knowing that his heart is beating because of me.”
The experience not only likely saved Eisenbeisz’s life, it may also have changed Fischer’s future plans.
“I have always known I wanted to be a doctor,” explained Fischer. “My father was so proud when I was accepted into medical school. Even while he fought for his life, he was insistent I stay in school and not let his illness affect my grades. Every A I earned was my way of showing him I could both help save his life while learning how to help others in the future. Now that I am in my clerkship year, I am seeing just how much compassion and respect this experience has given me for my patients and their families. We as physicians can’t fully appreciate how our patients’ diagnoses affect them and their families. I think it is so important to approach each patient without judgement and with empathy.
“I am often asked if I would want to be a cancer doctor given my experience. The honest answer is I’m not completely ruling it out. It seems it would only be fair for me to help give others more time with their loved ones because my family and I were given more time with my dad. Regardless of what type of physician I become, I will always be proud to say that the first life I helped save was my father’s.”