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Kevin was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia March 15, 2011, when he was 16 and a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School, Cleveland. He was treated solely with chemotherapy—probably a dozen different types administered through infusion, by pill, and by syringe. The initial phase of chemotherapy, induction, is strong and intended to knock the leukemia into remission. And it did: Kevin was officially in remission as of May 2011, with no “blasts” visible to the eye under the microscope, and only a very small percentage—less than .2%—detected chemically via flow cytometry.
Knowing how tough leukemia can be in that it can hide out in the body and is only vulnerable to chemotherapy while active, Kevin underwent chemo in one form or another on a varying schedule, both inpatient and out, every day through June 2014 when he was 19 and after completing his freshman year at the University of Rochester. The goal is to eliminate that .2% of Minimal Residual Disease to 0 as far as science can measure. Although he certainly felt the effects of chemo, his treatment was largely uneventful, as he didn’t contract his first infection until April 2013, and then had staph and viral infections in September 2013 a few weeks into his freshman year of college, requiring him to be hospitalized at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
As his friends from Cleveland know, Kevin returned to school and managed to graduate from high school on time. He rejoined the St Ignatius Marching Band drum line, took part in and ultimately led the Wilderness Retreat, was a leader in the St. Joseph of Arimethea Pallbearer Society, an officer in St. Michael’s Support our Troops, and participated in a full compliment of clubs and activities, and even was back playing goalie for his high school Vikings club team by November 2011.
Kevin graduated from UR with his BS Mechanical Engineering last May 2017. Again, he took part in a variety of activities throughout his college years including SAE Baja team for which he served as president his senior year, the Newman Center as an employee and Eucharistic minister, retreat leader, and even accompanied Fr. Brian Cool to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland summer 2016, and played goal tender for UR club hockey team. He also worked internships during the summers: first at Horsburgh & Scott in Cleveland and then at Harris Corporation in Rochester.
Harris ultimately offered Kevin a position upon graduation, and Kevin has been a part of Harris’s Space & Intelligence Division on Andy Van Auken’s hardware team since June 2017. Aside from truly loving his work, Kevin continues as an alumni advisor for the UR Baja team and remains active with the UR Newman Center. Aside from playing goal for two men’s hockey teams, Kevin resumed hiking the Appalachians, and has recently suited up, purchased a pair of Blizzard Quattros and returned to skiing.
Kevin was not in any way looking back over his shoulder.
While Kevin was busy living life, an ALL cell or two was hiding somewhere in his body but not in an actively dividing state at any time during that 3 years 3 months of daily chemotherapy—so the theory goes—and science doesn’t know why it woke up and started doing its mutated pre-B cell ALL thing: not being a good B lymphocyte white blood cell that matures in the marrow and then enters his blood stream to go out and fight germs. Pre-B ALL does nothing but hang out in his bone marrow and divide and divide and divide.
So while Kevin was being his engineer/hockey player/Baja/Catholic self, his marrow was slowly being filled up by mutant B cell “blasts” that do nothing but reproduce and crowd out all the other good cells. He started having twitches of bone pain in his back and shoulders in October, which worsened until he could no longer play goal by the end of December. Stretching and warm showers did the trick. All the while, Kevin had been undergoing blood tests and checkups under the care of Dr. Jeff Andolina at UR Medical Center, just moving from quarterly checks to every 6 months. Dr. Andolina did order an extra set of blood tests in early December; the CBC was normal but for slightly low platelets and no blasts.
December 30, he was unable to play in his Vikings alumni game due to severe back and shoulder pain, and Mike and I took him to the University Hospitals Rainbow ER where he was treated for muscle strain. But for slightly low platelets, his CBC was normal, and certainly no blasts were circulating. Kevin in no way was looking back, but I was.
He returned to work after Harris’s holiday break and skied a few times but couldn’t play hockey. Mike, Daniel and I met him and his girlfriend Maddy over the MLK holiday weekend to ski Bristol near the Finger Lakes, NY. He thought we were there just to ski, but I was also there to see how he was doing and how he looked.
Extreme pain again sent him to the ER in Rochester on February 8, where he was treated for pain and then MRI, CT, and X-rays were completed, and another normal CBC but for slightly low platelets. Some blood chemistry was off, so a marrow biopsy was ordered for the following is week.
On Monday, February 12, Dr. Andolina had the terrible burden of calling Kevin at 5:30pm to tell him that nearly 7 years since remission, his ALL had returned in a very rare relapse. And his leukemia is so insidious that it left no calling card, as he was showing no circulating blasts and his platelets and red blood cells were only just beginning their downward trajectory that day. Once the chemistry was complete, we were told that Kevin’s marrow was 90% leukemic. His marrow was packed so tight that the nurse practitioner had a difficult time drilling out a core of marrow from his hip for the biopsy and several of his vertebrae sustained compression fractures from the pressure, which explains his bone pain.
Seattle Children’s has graciously provided us a room to gather to remember Kevin, to thank all of his nurses, providers, and therapists for their outstanding care, and to say goodbye to all who have shown such generous hospitality (including Ron Don employees and volunteers) and support along our 16 month journey here. We ask that not only hospital employees drop-in, but those who honored us with friendship from the larger Seattle community.
Sand Point to Penny Drive until it ends at Ocean surface lot or garage. Enter building and present driver’s license at Security and indicate that you are attending Celebrating Kevin Bonko. Take whale elevators (left of entrance) down to 5th Floor. Exit to the left and proceed down the hallway and take the first left. The room is just past the check-in area, midway down the hall on the left.