Mom on a mission
While her cancer is in remission, Leslie Harris balances motherhood and health while seeking the bone marrow match that could save her life.
It’s hard enough being a first-time mommy. There are diapers to change and schedules to adjust, a whole new lifestyle built around a tiny little miracle. But when that mom is diagnosed with cancer on the day of her child’s birth, how does she balance having a newborn with her own health needs? The answer in Leslie Harris’ case: tenaciously. Leslie’s son Ayden celebrated his first birthday in September, and while Leslie is in remission, she still needs a bone marrow transplant to ensure her continued recovery — and the odds of finding her match are one in 20,000. But she’s optimistic, motivated and resilient, having not shed a tear since the diagnosis but instead inspiring countless drives throughout Arkansas in the past year, which have resulted in at least 41 new bone marrow matches for other people.
Q: So, catch readers up on your story. You were diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on a day that turned out to be significant for another, happier reason. What was that day like?
A: I actually didn’t know I had cancer [when I went in] — I went to six different doctors while I was pregnant, and everyone kept telling me, “It’s just a tough pregnancy,” and I was like, “If this is what having kids is like, then I will never have another one.” [Laughs.] My temperature was ranging from, like, 92 to 107. I was hypothermic, I would get in the shower and warm up, then I would sweat… I finally went into Baptist where I was due to be delivered and I said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I feel like I’m dying.” My urine sample came back black and they said, “It looks like oil sludge, your kidneys are shut down.” So, they gave me 24 hours to live, and they were going to take the baby by C-section, because I couldn’t deliver. They figured he was going to be stillborn. And all I remember is going in and them telling me, “Well you know you can’t have any gas, any anesthesia, pain meds, anything topical, anything for your surgery, you have to do it all natural.” And I said What?! They said, you know, with him inside you, it’s too dangerous, and we might lose you both. So I went in there and just held onto the rails, and they went in and over, and it felt like fire, it was the worst thing I’ve ever felt. They said I had a 3 percent chance to make it through the surgery. They said write your will and call your family, you’re not going to make it. When I woke up, three days later, there were 37 people in the room — But he was healthy, that’s the one thing I remember thinking — if this is my last rendezvous down here, please, just let my baby not have cancer. Because, of course, leukemia is a disease of the blood, and we shared the same bloodstream.
Q: Acute myeloid leukemia is rare under the age of 40, but you were just 29 when you were diagnosed. What was your prognosis a year ago, and what are the doctors saying now about your progress?
A: I’m in the less than 1 percent. It’s very weird — when they told me, they said it’s usually the elderly or infants that get this. The thing is, doctors think I’ve had it my whole life. That’s why it’s acute myeloid, because acute means brought out by something. So by being pregnant, that’s what brought it out. I’ve just been getting sicker the last 30 years and finally I just couldn’t even walk, I couldn’t do anything. I was working three jobs, cause I had left television, and I couldn’t stay home, — I did a radio show with Randy Pearson on the weekends, and I worked two jobs in retail, one during the day and one during the evening. When they diagnosed me, I never cried — for whatever reason, I laid there and I thought, I’ll call the strongest first. So I called my mom, she didn’t answer. I called my dad, he didn’t answer. I called my sister, she answers and she’s at work and she’s a nurse, and she said, “How’d your results come back, babe?” and I said, “Well, I’ve got leukemia.” And that’s how we found out, basically, the day he was born. They said, “You have 24 hours, and there’s nothing we can do for you really, but the longer you make it, the more it is a miracle.”
Q: I’m sure the feeling of hearing that, and then having a healthy son born, that brought out a range of feelings.
A: That’s all I really wanted; when they gave me six months, I kind of had a little talk with God, and I said, “Look: Not many people are lucky enough to know when they’re gonna die. And, you know, if I can take this six months to a year — and I’ve never done a whole lot of charity stuff or worked for just solely God, I always worked in television, but I thought, you know, maybe I can use this time to do something good for someone else. And so if by my bone marrow drives, someone else finds a match and I don’t, I won’t be sad, I’ll be happy because I know what they’re going through. We’ve done drives in places from UCA to churches, and then small places like beauty shops, everybody just started — and now we’ve found 41 confirmed. And it’s international. Those could be matches in Africa, in London, Ohio...
Q: Your son just turned 1 in September. Being a new mom seems hard enough on its own — what are some of the challenges of having a 1-year-old and being treated for this disease?
A: Honestly, I had to have a whole lot of help. My family and [Ayden’s] dad have really been supportive. I couldn’t even hold him up to change a diaper. It was very difficult, because really, as a first time mom, you want to do everything perfect. I even questioned myself when it came to changing diapers, I’m like, is this perfect? Once you’ve been around them for a little while, kids are just resilient. I’m just glad I had cancer before he was old enough to understand what it is. If I didn’t have the support that I have, even from strangers — they give hope, they give motivation — and I look and I go, 41 donors — my god that’s 41 people who’ve had a prayer answered. I can’t imagine [Ayden] having cancer. You know, there’s no reason he shouldn’t. I carried him for 39 1/2 weeks, we shared the same bloodstream, we really should both be looking for a donor right now.
Q: What could a bone marrow transplant mean to you?
A: You have to be in remission, and then they’ll do the transplant, and they don’t like to do it unless you’re a 10/10 match, because you face rejection, like a lady I know did last week.
Q: Though a match hasn’t been found for you, yet, drives for you have found matches for others in need. How does that make you feel?
A: I mean, just blessed. This isn’t something money can buy. And when we get people to come out to drives, it’s so difficult because they’re thinking, it’s a Friday night, I don’t want to, or, I don’t go to church, I’m not going to go there… I did a lot of volunteer stuff in high school with the homeless and shelters for dogs and battered women shelters, but I never imagined I’d have to try and get blood from someone for myself. I gave blood, up until I was pregnant with Ayden, but I didn’t think I was going to have to — I mean it’s easier to get money out of people than it is to get blood, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs.] And that’s the one the one thing that I have learned. That, and you face rejection. If you find a donor, and the doctor calls them in California and says, “You’re a match for a six-month-old little girl, do you still wish to do it,” they can say no. So you gotta be prepared. A lot of my friends didn’t want to [register as a donor] for anyone else, and I’m like, then don’t do it at all, cause if I found a match, and the person said no, you know how much that would break my heart.
Q: There seems to be a real community of support surrounding you. What kind of support have you seen from people you don’t know?
A: I have never seen so many strangers come up to me in my life. These are people who don’t know me, coming up to me at donor drives, and they’ll just start crying, and come give me a hug. Everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by cancer. For me, it was never supposed to happen, but you’re supposed to do something with what you’ve been given. And God says, “What did you do with what I gave you?” And I’m like, “Well, I got cancer, that’s not the BEST thing you’ve ever given me,” but if it helps people in years to come, like 20 years from now it could be your sister, or your brother, or your mom that needs it, and you never think about anything really until it happens to you.
I mean the support I’ve seen from the people I don’t know and the people I do — I expected my family to come through, but the way that they came through, I mean my mom and my dad slept on the couch at the hospital for 50 days straight. I had [Ayden], and he got to go home after five days, after running all the checks to make sure he didn’t have it, and then it was really hard cause he couldn’t come to see me anymore cause I’d be in the isolation room, and that’s what they do, cause once you’re in remission they do the stem cell treatment, and you’re in an isolated room, … I had no immunity. They used to say things like, “Don’t go to McDonald’s, don’t go to the grocery store and touch buggies, one germ could kill you.” And I’m like, “Where am I supposed to go? The only places I go are McDonald’s and Wal-Mart!”
Q: What’s something you would want all potential bone marrow donors to know?
A: Just, thank you. Thank you for coming out to my drives, thank you for taking the day off work to come do it, you know, it was so hard to get people together, but I had so many friends that came through and did events at their restaurants, or at their house, or Blue Cross Blue Shield did one a few months ago. We can have, like, two going at once. We can have one at UCA on Friday, the Methodist church on Sunday, the students from Hendrix — I've had six drives in one weekend, that's my most. I made it to five of those. And everyone always wants to see [Ayden], you know, make sure he's doing ok.
Q: If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
A: Africa. I want to do mission work there. The people are too poor to afford anything, like medicines. I wanna get involved, like start calling Nike, and say, “Hey Nike, I'm Leslie Harris and I need 50,000 pairs of shoes donated.” And I want to get my church to start sending them things, and by the time we get a mission project going, we can have like 2,000 pairs of tennis shoes, and bottles of water, maybe call Nestle water. … I just want to do more charity work. I want to give back what's been given to me. And when I was sick I couldn't help, and now that I'm not sick anymore and I'm in remission, I can at least get on my own two feet and change his diaper and give him baths. But at first it was too much. I had so many biopsies in my back, I couldn't even bend over and put him in his crib. I missed his first bath, I missed his first steps, I was in the hospital, but at least I'm not 35 and having this, and he knows, at least he's not sad or scared, or worrying where mommy's at... I stopped letting him come to the hospital cause he got staph. Three members of my family got staph from coming to the hospital. My mom, my aunt and Ayden.
Q: Have there been any silver linings you've found that comes along with this? Some good along with the bad?
A: Who my true friends are. A lot of people say they'll go to hell and back with you but they don't mean it. I've had people that are strangers that have been a better friend than people I knew. But on the flip side, my high school, I think I graduated with 392, I think 300 came out to an event at the Rumba Room, 300 of the people there were from my high school. Who remembered me, still, after 12 years ... I was in the hospital for that one, and I got out on the 31st [of October last year] and I'd lost all my hair, so I went as Sinead O'Connor for Halloween. I had to learn the words to "Nothing Compares." I think I might've scared all the children, you know, being bald. They were like, "What are you supposed to be?" and I'm like, “A cancer patient!"
See if you are Leslie’s match at the Full Moon Walk and Health Fair on Nov. 25 from 5-7:30 p.m. Register at Cook’s Landing on the North Little Rock side of the Big Dam Bridge.