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A survivor pays it forward, one flight at a time

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image Dale and Jane Revell in their Sun City Center home. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Twenty years ago, Dale was given five years to live. Now he’s helping others to survive.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

SUN CITY CENTER - At age 34, Dale Revell was a self-described hard-charging executive with the Ford Motor Credit Company, working to climb the corporate ladder. At such a young age, many people still believe they are immortal. Revell would soon find out otherwise.

“We were living in Buffalo, NY,” he said. “I was feeling pretty bad one night and we went to the hospital. I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.”

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is cancer of the lymphoid tissue, which includes the lymph nodes, spleen and other organs of the immune system.

“I was 34 years old, working for Ford,” he continued. “I was one of the youngest managers in the company and my career was going up, and then this happened.”

Revell spent the next six years undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.

“Through the chemotherapy, I was able to work most days,” he said. “I was really blessed to have an employer that was easy to get along with. I would do chemotherapy on Friday, would be sick all weekend, and then able to go to work on Monday.”

He kept working and Ford promoted him to a new position in Detroit. But it was never easy.

His first doctor was far less aggressive than the cancer. Revell developed bone cancer and had a hip replaced. Soon after, Dale along with his wife, Jane, found a new doctor, Chatchada Karanes, from the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. After six years of chemotherapy, Dr. Karanes realized that Dale was rapidly approaching the end of the road in terms of what that form of treatment could do for him.

Dr. Karanes first recommended a bone marrow transplant, but no one in his family was a match and that raised the prospect of a long wait on the bone marrow donor program. She then suggested something that had never been tried before in that hospital. Dale Revell would serve as his own donor for blood stem cells.

“I needed more chemotherapy to clean up my bone marrow, then they gave me a growth hormone to stimulate the stem cell growth in my own body. After that, they went in and extracted my stem cells.”

The stem cells were then frozen and Dale went into the hospital to start the process of replacing his own bone marrow. But first, they needed to kill off all of his existing marrow with heavy doses of chemotherapy.

“We were going home from one of my treatments in Detroit, Jane was driving since I wasn’t able to,” he said. “I was lying down in my seat and Jane said, ‘Oh honey, I wish it was me that was going through this’ and I said, ‘I wish it was, too.’  We kind of laughed then.” 

They laughed in telling the story.

“You try to make light of it, but yes, there were times when I wish I would have died. The heavy chemotherapy was so toxic. I told Jane several times that I don’t want to do this anymore. She’d kind of kick me in the butt and remind me that we have little kids here and I couldn’t think that way.”

In the process of replacing his bone marrow, his immune system was severely comprised to the point that catching a mere cold might have meant a death sentence. After 30 days in the hospital, he was told he could go home. His doctors predicted that he had only five years to live.  He hoped to live long enough to see his daughter and son graduate from high school .

Twenty years later, a very healthy looking Dale and his youthful-looking wife Jane told their story in the living room of their comfortable Sun City Center home. The five-year prognosis turned out to be incorrect, and for the past 20 years, Dale has been cancer-free. Now he makes an annual trip to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for a checkup.

He not only lived to see his daughter and son graduate, but if his healthy demeanor and sparkling attitude are any indication, he will also likely see his grandchildren graduate.

 They feel blessed by their doctors, the research from which he benefitted, and even Dale’s employer. At the time, the procedure that saved his life was so experimental and so expensive that his insurance company told him that Ford would not authorize payment for it. Jane worked with the doctors to put together a position paper that they presented to the Ford company doctors. Ford approved the procedure and Dale went on to retire as the director of North American operations for Ford Motor Credit Company customer service.

“From a corporate perspective, going through this made a difference,” Dale said. “I was kind of hard-charging and this helped me to take a different look on how I deal with people.”

Throughout his years of chemotherapy and treatment, Ford kept promoting him.

“People brought meals for us, we had the right doctors at the right time, Ford provided great coverage and support — and the moves we made resulted in meeting the doctors we needed,” Dale said. “We really think it was God’s hand in this.”

Dale also served on the finance board of the National Bone Marrow Donor program. When the couple retired and moved to Sun City Center, they found a new way to give back, to do what they can to help others facing what they once faced. They became bone marrow and stem cell couriers. This year, Dale has made seven trips and Jane has made six. They don’t travel together and the trips aren’t vacations by any stretch of the imagination. They generally have 24 hours from the time they pick up the small cooler contain life-saving marrow or stem cells until it must be at the hospital in some other city.

“It is a little bit of pressure,” Dale said. “We usually skip meals and run right to the next plane.”

Discretion is a big part of the job. The donor marrow or stem cells are stored in a cooler that is inconspicuously placed into a carry-on bag. But the material cannot be x-rayed at airport security checkpoints.

“We have documentation and paperwork that we give to the TSA to let them know what we are doing,” Jane said. “Most people know by now, so it’s very seldom that we’ll encounter a TSA agent who doesn’t know about this, in which case we have to ask for a supervisor. But the TSA will open up the lid and swath it to ensure there is nothing else there.”

They will also notify the cabin crew that Dale and Jane are couriers, letting them know as a courtesy and so they know there is a very definite deadline. But they do not discuss it with other passengers. Like all couriers, Dale and Jane received training for how to properly carry and handle the material. They have also had hazmat training in the unlikely event of an accident.

Dale and Jane never meet the recipients of the marrow or stem cells they carry, most of them likely suffering from lymphatic cancer or leukemia, nor do they meet the donors. But they hold the recipients in their prayers and the donors in high regard. In telling their story, they hope that others will consider joining the Be The Match program, to donate bone marrow or stem cells. Joining the donor registry requires a painless swab from the inside of the mouth to find a match for those in need.

An actual bone marrow donation requires an outpatient hospital visit and a stem cell donation requires little more than what is typically involved in donating blood — blood is extracted from one arm, the stem cells are siphoned off and the blood is returned into the other arm. Today, the majority of donor needs are in the form of stem cells and, more recently, through available cord blood that is donated after the birth of a child.

“It’s neat to be able to do,” said Dale of being a courier. “It’s certainly not something we went looking for. It was something that was presented to us, and we are happy for the opportunity. We are happy to volunteer our time for this.”

Individually, Dale and Jane have flown all over the United States as couriers. They are now considering becoming international couriers.

Back at home in Sun City Center, the couple is enjoying their retirement. Dale, who 20 years ago was given five years to live, is living his life to the fullest.

“People might look at us and think we’ve got it made,” he said. “We live in a nice home in Sun City; people might think we’ve never known a problem in our lives. A lot of times you approach people who are going through a rough time and say, ‘I know how you feel’ and they usually don’t think that you actually do. But I’ve been there, I do know.”

The couple is also involved in their church, the Bell Shoals Baptist Church, and in riding their motorcycle with the Faith Riders, a motorcycle ministry.

“My mom tells me I’m riding a motorcycle and I’m going to be killed,” Dale said with a laugh. “I know now that when it’s your time, it’s your time. When God wants me home, I’m going.”

For more information on how you can donate life-saving bone marrow and stem cells, visit Be The Match at www.marrow.org or call 800-627-7692. There are also several area donor drives taking place in the Tampa Bay area, with information available on the Be The Match website.

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