Mikayla Skinner

I had recently begun my senior year of college at Ball State University, studying Speech Language Pathology. I was preparing to take the GRE and beginning the process of applying to graduate schools. I had a plan and was determined to stick to it. A few weeks before my diagnosis, I noticed a small bump on the back of my neck. I didn’t think much of it considering I have chronic sinus problems and just assumed it might’ve been related to that. Shortly after, I noticed a few more behind my ear. Then it was a few more behind the other ear. Eventually, it had gone from one small bump to about eight large bumps in a matter of four weeks. I had also been experiencing a sharp pain in my left side and noticed I was excessively tired all the time. I assumed it was because I had just recently broken my ankle and was in a boot for three weeks. My mother finally convinced me to go to the doctor. When I went to the clinic at Ball State, the doctor thought it could be mono. She did a finger prick test and it came back negative. The doctor then told me that it could be stomach related, but that if I didn’t feel better within a few days, I needed to go get a full blood work screening done. My primary doctor at home had ordered some blood work for me after hearing my symptoms just in case. On October 7, I went to do her blood work and then went home to study for the GRE. I was supposed to take it the next day. About two hours after getting my blood drawn, I received a phone call from the hospital. They told me that my white blood cell count was panic level high and that I needed to go to the emergency room immediately. Once I got there, they told me that my white blood cell count was 150,000 and it normally runs between 3,000 and 10,000. The doctor told me this normally means leukemia. I was completely taken aback. My life had completely changed right in that moment. I was sent straight to Parkview Regional Medical Center where I spent the next 27 days. I was officially diagnosed with B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia later on in the week. In that 27 days at the hospital, I received multiple high dose chemotherapy treatments, had several reactions to chemo, and was labeled as a fall risk due to passing out from what they assumed was the chemo. It was a long 27 days, but I made it. After treatment, they performed a bone marrow biopsy to see how much disease was left in my body. It had gone from 95% of my cells being leukemia cells to only 1.01%. But it still wasn’t zero. They started the second round of chemotherapy, which I was able to do outpatient. However, this round was much more intense and consisted of a much higher number of treatments. I spent anywhere from 2 to 5 days a week at the Cancer Institute receiving treatment for roughly 2 months. Once this round was over, they did another biopsy. This time, the results were 0.02%. Again, not zero. My doctors had decided that the chemotherapy was obviously not doing what it needed to be doing and that I had one of two options: a bone marrow transplant or something called CAR T cell therapy. The doctors initial suggestion was a bone marrow transplant because my chances of staying in remission were higher than with CAR T. However, with a recent discovery of an underlying liver problem, they believed that CAR T would be the safer option in terms of survival. On February 4, I went down to Riley to get an apherisis catheter placed for my T cell collection the next day. I was hooked up to a machine that looked very much like a dialysis machine. The process took about 4 hours, most of which I napped through. It took my blood, collected the T cells specifically, then returned my blood back to my body. My cells were then sent to a lab where they were manufactured to kill my cancer cells once placed back in my body. March 19, I was admitted to Riley Hospital’s Stem Cell Unit and started chemo right away. I had 4 days of chemo, a total of 6 doses. After that, I had two rest days. My manufactured T cells were infused on March 25, and it took a total of 4 minutes. Oddly enough, I could taste and smelled like creamed corn for a whole day afterwards. I am due to go home soon, which I am very excited about as the food here is much to be desired. Once sent home, I will receive weekly labs at Parkview North and attend a virtual meeting with my doctors at Riley, at least until all of this COVID-19 mess is over. I am doing well and hoping that my journey will soon be a closed chapter of my life.