Patient Braves Bone Marrow Transplant in the Face of COVID Lockdowns

MUSC Health
April 05, 2021
JP Riley

Sumter, SC resident JP Reilly was in Charleston visiting his son, an MUSC Health tech, for Father’s Day in 2018 when his life abruptly changed. While spending time downtown, Reilly suddenly fainted, seemingly inexplicably, and was rushed to MUSC in an ambulance.

Within two weeks, on July 5 to be exact, Reilly’s tests revealed he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and would need to begin treatment immediately. Instead of heading back to Sumter, he was admitted to MUSC Health ART 7 West that day. With a military background, Reilly was somewhat ready for whatever came next.

“I told the doctors, ‘I’m going to treat this like a battlefield,’” he remembers. “‘I’m the battlefield and you’re the generals. You just tell me what to do to get this battlefield ready, and I’ll do whatever you guys tell me to do.’”

After 43 days at battle, Reilly entered remission, but less than a year later the cancer returned. A bone marrow transplant was scheduled for March, 2020—then COVID-19 appeared. The big question was: to continue as planned or postpone the transplant?

“There were competing concerns,” Reilly says. “A lot of the medication I needed comes from China and that whole pipeline was beginning to shut down. And would I be able to get my actual marrow here? Because that was coming from Europe and European air travel was pretty much shut down.”

But his medical team, including MUSC Hollings Cancer Center's Dr. Robert Stuart, Dr. Amarendra Nepalli and coordinator Colleen Butcher, were optimistic, resolute to continue. The transplant was only delayed a week or so to accommodate the arrival of the bone marrow, which had to be frozen to ensure its safe journey.

As for Reilly, he wasn’t nervous. After all, Hollings has been a National Marrow Donor Program collection and transplant center for nearly 30 years, with its survival outcomes in the top 10% in the country. He had spoken with several friends who’d recently undergone similar procedures with no problem. He says, “It's also reassuring when the doctors are confident and have it all figured out.”

The day Reilly went into the hospital is the day the hospital changed procedures in light of the coronavirus, no longer allowing visitors to accompany patients. He was admitted two days early to begin the additional precaution of isolation. It was a lonely two weeks, but he was actually able to see his wife, from afar.

JP Riley looking out the window of his room. 
JP Riley's wife would talk to him from the parking garage across from his room. 

“My wife would come and go to the parking garage next door and we’d talk on the phone across the way,” he said. “I’d go up to the window and she could see me and I could see her.”

But Reilly admits he wasn’t entirely alone, with the nurses “going out of their way” to accommodate him. The whole team, he says, was a nurturing one that made him feel safe and supported.

“They care and it's obvious when you're there that they care,” he says. “It’s obvious what their purpose is, ‘We're all here to get you out of here and to do whatever we can to make your day better.’”

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MUSC Health

Keywords: Patient Story, Transplant, Cancer