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Physician gains patient perspective after stem cell transplant

Steven Weinreb, MD

Dr. and Mrs. Steven Weibreb

As a physician who spent years treating blood cancer patients, Steven Weinreb, MD, knows the important role that stem cell transplants play in long-term survival. He never anticipated, however, he'd undergo one himself — or experience the near-lethal side effects.

First treated near his Hartford, Conn., home in 2007 for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Weinreb came to Dana-Farber after a recurrence. On September 25, 2011, he underwent an allogeneic stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), in which, as he later wrote in a New York Times article, " wise, 52-year-old white blood cells were replaced by bewildered, low-functioning cells from an anonymous European donor."

Weinreb's immune system accepted the donated stem cells, but he later developed graft versus host disease, a common complication of stem cell transplants. A combination of infection, blood clots in his lungs, and a reaction to his medication led to anemia and necessitated the removal of part of his right lung.

"My surgeon in Hartford was in touch almost daily with Dr. Ted Alyea, my DF/BWCC oncologist. Bacteria that usually live benignly in healthy peoples' mouths caused the infection," says Weinreb, who took a leave of absence from his practice. "I couldn't travel to Boston for two or three months, I couldn't eat, and I lost about 30 pounds. I thought I was going to die."

Weinreb credits his wife, Cynthia Heller, their three children, his extended family, his patients, and the clinical care teams at Hartford Hospital and DF/BWCC for his recovery. Further motivation came when Frantz Berthaud, clinical administrator for DF/BWCC's Division of Hematologic Malignancies, asked Weinreb to participate in the 2013 Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai, as a member of the "Heme Team" — a fundraising group of physicians, nurses, and other staff from Hematologic Malignancies, along with patients and their families.

"The first day I was able to go outside, my wife drove me to the local college track," recalls Weinreb, a longtime runner. "She helped me walk one quarter-mile lap, and I was completely exhausted. I went right home to bed, but the next day I went back and did two laps, then three and four."

The Walk was two years to the month after his transplant, and Weinreb trekked 13.1 miles alongside his wife, Frantz, and nearly 100 other Heme Team members. Along the way, he developed an appreciation for how patients overcome obstacles.

"The lessons I've learned through this whole experience are numerous," says Weinreb. "The importance of community, of course; the importance of having the opportunity to [recover and walk]; and the importance of bringing what I've learned back to my practice. I really don't want to preach to my patients about the need to persevere in times of trouble, but I do want to set an example that things are possible."

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