Family cheerleader turned fighter, defeats MDS

Sitting on the bleachers, cheering on her high school-aged daughter and supporting her family on the basketball court – this was Kim Harrison’s amazing life. She is a wife, a mother of six and a grandmother of 14.  Harrison is committed to being at every event, big or small, cheering on her loved ones on or off the field. She had no idea that shortly after her daughter’s wedding in April 2013, her family would become her cheerleaders as she faced the curveball of her life — cancer.

Months after her daughter’s wedding, Harrison received a phone call from her doctor’s office while at work. From a routine checkup, her primary care provider noticed her body’s white blood cell count was dangerously low.

Her primary care provider immediately advised her to quit her job and refrain from traveling anywhere, even just a simple trip to the grocery store. Harrison said her doctor explained that if she was in a car accident, she would bleed out.

The diagnosis that started the fight

She was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). MDS is a rare type of blood cancer that causes blood-forming cells in the bone marrow to become damaged, abnormal or defective. Ultimately, this cancer leaves the individual without enough normal blood cells to function.

MDS usually does not present symptoms until the disease progresses. The disease is usually detected in blood work, even before the patient experiences any symptoms. This was the case for Harrison. Once the disease progresses, patients may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, frequent infections, bleeding, pale skin, weight loss, loss of appetite, pain in the bones and fever.

Instead of sitting on the bleachers cheering on her family, she was now confined to a chair at the age of 53 receiving intensive chemotherapy infusions.

“I had never even heard of this disease. Even working all my life as a hospital transporter, I had never run into someone with this disease until that patient was me,” Harrison said.

After three months of infusions without improvement, a dear friend and neighbor recommended getting a second opinion at Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit. Harrison was greeted with a warm welcome and the kindhearted nature of Lois Ayash, M.D., member of the Bone Marrow & Stem Cell Transplant (BMT) Multidisciplinary Team.

Kim’s bone marrow transplant

The chemotherapy infusions provided more time for Harrison, but Dr. Ayash found that she needed a bone marrow transplant. Without skipping a beat, Harrison’s brother volunteered first to see if he was a match. Family member after family member, no one was a match.

The BMT team at Karmanos performs around 200 transplants each year. In progressed stages of MDS, a bone marrow transplant is the recommended course of action if the patient is healthy enough to withstand the potential rigors of the therapy and graft-versus-host disease, according to Dr. Ayash.

“Without a transplant, the bone marrow will completely fail, or the disease will transform to acute leukemia. There is a better chance of curing the patient if a transplant is performed,” she explained.

After just four months, Harrison received the phone call she needed. Not only was there one match, but Karmanos found several.

March 27, 2014 was a long-anticipated day for Harrison and her family. Just like any other morning, she woke up bright and early for her five-mile walk.

“I always told people it’s important to be in the best shape of your life before surgery, and I was going to do just that before my transplant,” Harrison explained.

When she got home from her walk, she approached her husband Bruce with a razor. She had him shave every hair on her head. With a harmonious mix of giggles and tears, he looked her in the eyes and recited a phrase that would soon become her anchor in times of hardship: “I am so proud of you.”

Approaching the 10th floor, Harrison was greeted with a smile and simple remark that would gear her mind for the best.

Harrison recounted, “The friendliest nurse came into the room and told me something I would never forget, ‘You have the most beautiful head.’ As a newly diagnosed cancer patient, that meant the world to me.”

With two vital bags of plasma in hand, Harrison’s care team reviewed all the details.

“What I loved about the staff at Karmanos was their dedication to detail and understanding. They would go over everything with me to make sure I understood just what to expect on my road to healing,” reflected Harrison.

“The patient interaction is the best part of the job. I personally love taking care of them as they go through transplant in-person,” said Dr. Ayash. “I know it’s a scary time for them, but I love getting them through the chemotherapy, the transplant and the other tough parts of the care process.”

Cheering on their cheerleader

Once the transplant was completed, Harrison was confined to her hospital room for 30 days with three simple tasks. One of the tasks was to get up and walk 16 laps around the transplant floor. Each time she would complete a lap, she would pass by the symbolic bell that she believed would one day signify the end of her cancer treatment.

“My life literally depended on my white blood cell count. It wasn’t about how I was feeling; it was solely based on my numbers each week,” said Harrison.

Harrison remained steadfast and strong with her greatest supporter by her side, her husband Bruce, who would remind her each day how proud he was of her. She believes her husband’s words kept her going when everything else in her wanted to quit.

Rather than arrive at the field to support her grandchildren in their athletic endeavors, her grandchildren were the ones arriving with flowers and everything yellow to brighten her day. To them, their grandmother is the strongest person in the world.

“I assumed my grandma was fearful of the unknown, but I never saw it in her,” Harrison’s granddaughter Claire shared. “She was the walking lap queen. When she took laps around the hospital, she would beat all the other patients by so many laps, which just showed her drive to always persevere. Not saying she didn’t have vulnerable moments, but I mean from what she could control, she’d use it.”

Another one of Harrison’s greatest encouragements came from her care team. From the doctors to the physician assistants, to the nurses, to the cleaning staff, they made each day unforgettable. Harrison said she will cherish the relationships she made forever.

After thirty days, she was finally able to go home. Whether it was spending up to two hours each week sorting her medication or driving her to every follow-up appointment, her husband was her rock, as they took each step together.

Kim’s new normal

Returning to Karmanos for her follow-up bloodwork brought many emotions for Harrison. Week after week, she began to get discouraged at the lack of improvement in her white blood count. She longed to be sitting in the benches cheering on her favorite player: number 10, her daughter Ashley. Overtime, Dr. Ayash came to a conclusion; this was Harrison’s new normal range. The bone marrow transplant was successful. These were the words Harrison longed to hear since the first day she heard of MDS.

As a result of the careful care and consideration of the Karmanos team, Harrison has been cancer free for nine years.

“I did not know if I would be able to make it to see my daughter’s graduation or the birth of my grandsons, but I made it because of the experience and expertise at Karmanos,” Harrison said.

She was able to return to watch Ashley finish her softball season.

“I always knew that my mom would be watching my game in any way she could. Whether it was in the stands, in the car, or on a screen at home, she did whatever she could to support me. That support gave me confidence to do my best,” said Ashley.

Nine years since her initial diagnosis, Harrison enjoys taking vacations with her husband of over 26 years. She continues to enjoy cheering on her biggest fans and cheerleaders - her family.

“I have truly forgotten that I’ve had a bone marrow transplant. I have forgotten that I was sick because I am now in my new normal,” described Kim.

“From the clerks at check-in, to the lab technicians, to the nurses, I am so impressed with the quality of care and dedication that the Karmanos staff gives our patients,” said Dr. Ayash. “It is normal for patients to be anxious, but I know the staff will do everything they can to make this a positive experience for them.”

Data released by the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Registry shows that  Karmanos Cancer Institute’s Bone Marrow Transplantation Program is one of only a select group nationwide reporting some of the best survival outcomes for related and unrelated stem cell transplantation.

If you are in need of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, it is important to be evaluated by the experts in this field before beginning treatment. Call 1-800-KARMANOS (800-527-6266) or visit to schedule an appointment.