Michelle Bail didn’t think she was fighting for her life.
“I thought I had a bad stomach virus. I had no interest in eating because I couldn’t keep anything down. I was also more tired than usual. And the lymph nodes under my arms were swollen, which I ignored,” says Bail, identifying some of the common symptoms of leukemia.
The South Hadley woman found herself at her primary care doctor for tests. “I heard from the office the next morning and they wanted me to come in right away,” Bail says.
LEUKEMIA BRINGS HER TO BAYSTATE
When her doctor told her that she had leukemia, “I was devastated and very angry. I couldn’t stop thinking of my husband, our children and grandchildren, and wondering what I did to deserve this.”
Her doctor admitted her to Holyoke Medical Center. “I met with an oncologist there, but they told me that because of the seriousness of my leukemia, I really needed to be at Baystate Medical Center.”
“Before the day was over, I was transferred by ambulance to Baystate,” says Bail. And even before arriving at the hospital, she was told she would be working with Dr. Richard Steingart, a hematologist oncologist in the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.
Although Bail’s primary care physician suspected leukemia based on the results of her blood test, it wasn’t until after being admitted to Baystate and having a bone marrow test that her diagnose of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) was confirmed.
BLOOD AND BONE MARROW CANCER
AML is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The symptoms often mimic those of the flu. AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults, and usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated.
According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, about 19,500 people of all ages in the United States will be diagnosed with AML every year. “Thanks to advances in cancer research, supportive care, and new treatments, more and more people are living as AML survivors,” says Steingart.
Chemotherapy is the main treatment for AML. Chemo targets rapidly dividing cancer cells. Patients who are younger than 60 respond best to treatment, with some 80 percent going into remission after their first round of chemotherapy.
A CHANGE IN TREATMENT PLANS
Just days after her diagnosis, Bail’s health took a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse.
Bail’s husband, Christopher, explains, “I was sitting next to my wife one evening in the hospital and noticed her breathing pattern was labored. She was taking long, deep breaths, almost like she was hyperventilating. So I called for the nurse and before we knew it, she was being moved to the intensive care unit.”
“Everything was failing—her liver, her kidneys, her lungs—and Shelly was put on a ventilator,” he explains.
Clinical staff in the intensive care unit (ICU) quickly tried to reach Dr. Steingart in New York City, where he was visiting for the weekend.
“Michelle had chest pain, shortness of breath, and hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) with fever. At first, we thought that she could have a heart problem. But then we decided it was caused by build-up in her chest due to her leukemia and high white blood cell count. I decided it made sense to start chemotherapy while she was being monitored in our ICU,” says Dr. Steingart.
“About all I can remember is a nurse coming in to tell me they had reached Dr. Steingart and that we had a choice to make. She told me that he wanted to start chemotherapy right away,” recalls Bail.
She made the right choice.
Bail started chemotherapy that evening. “It was like a miracle. For someone who was supposed to die that night, when Shelly woke up the next morning, her breathing was much better, and she spoke very coherently,” says her husband.
“One thing I can say about Dr. Steingart is that he was always so available," said Bail. "He would explain everything to me about my cancer, what was happening to me, how my treatments were going, and any possible challenges I might face.”
“I can still remember one of his very first visits with me when he was brutally honest, and I appreciated that. He told me, ‘I am going to treat you and you are going to be very, very sick along the way before you are better.’ I never felt in the dark about my treatment and what was going on. And, as I got to know Dr. Steingart better as a doctor, I always felt safe when he came in to talk with me.”
Her husband agrees about the doctor’s willingness to explain everything and his ability to make it understandable.
“When Shelly landed in the ICU, Dr. Steingart explained when he returned from New York that what had happened was the white blood cells were attacking her lungs and that was making it difficult for her to breathe. He also uses great analogies to make treatment easier to understand,” he says.
INFECTIONS LEAD TO LONG HOSPITAL STAYS
Several times throughout her treatment, Bail had serious infections which sent her back to the hospital.
Bail recalls, “I was never out of the hospital more than a week at a time. I distinctly remember being in the hospital for Valentine’s Day and even for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we Skyped to the celebration at my daughter’s house.”
“I was so sick at times with a fever as high as 106 degrees. I remember waking up at one point in the ICU and seeing my husband and children crying and surrounding my bed. I remember saying to them, ‘Am I dead?’” says Bail.
REGAINING STRENGTH WITH PHYSICAL THERAPY
After long stays in the hospital, Bail needed physical therapy to help get her strength back and to improve her walking after being bed-bound for so long. At one point, she spent a month at Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital.
“I was afraid to leave the hospital,” she explains. “I know it sounds weird to say that, but Baystate had been my home for so long. It is not always easy to find a place at the Weldon Center, but Dr. Steingart worked very hard to get me in there. He always had my best interests in mind.”
ON THE ROAD TO REMISSION
Once her inpatient chemotherapy was completed, Bail began a long process of visits to her hematologist.
“It was nerve wracking going in for visits, but comfortable at the same time. Every time I had blood work I was afraid for the results, but Dr. Steingart always personally called me at home with the results, which turned out to be good,” says Bail.
Bail has been in remission and recently celebrated four years of being cancer free. She no longer has regular visits with Dr. Steingart, but must have bloodwork one to two times a year as a precaution.
THANKS TO THE TEAM WHO GAVE HER LIFE BACK
To say Bail’s admiration for Dr. Steingart is endless is an understatement.
"Whenever I saw Dr. Steingart outside of the hospital, I would cry. He once said to me, ‘Whenever you see me, you start to cry.’ I replied by telling him, ‘You gave me my life back. You are the person responsible for me being able to do the things I do today and for the rest of my life,'" says Bail.
“Dr. Steingart was just so unbelievably good to me—a wonderful doctor and man. And, I’m sure he’s the same way with his other patients. He still hugs my husband when he sees him,” she adds.
She also had kind words for the hospital’s Oncology Unit. “I don’t know how they do it...working with very sick cancer patients day in and day out. They became like family to me and were so supportive of my own family as well,” she recalls.