If security department employee Barry Stevens greets visitors and staff at the University of Maryland Medical Center with just a slightly warmer smile or perhaps a bit more empathy than most, there's a good reason. A brush with a life-threatening illness four years ago -- and his own experience being treated for cancer as a patient at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) -- give him a unique perspective on work and life.
An infection and illness in 2002 sent the then 27-year-old Parkville resident to a local hospital, where a blood test showed that he was suffering from acute myeloid leukemia (AML). A cancer of blood-forming tissues of the bone marrow, AML is characterized by the growth of immature white blood cells. Stevens was referred to UMGCC because of its program in hematologic malignancies, or cancers of the blood, and its participation in many of the latest leukemia research protocols.
Dr. Ivana Gojo, a specialist in leukemia and other hematologic malignancies at UMGCC, and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, became Stevens' oncologist. After his extended cancer treatment experience, he considers her his friend as well. "Except for a two-week break at home, I was in the hospital for three months. You get to know everyone pretty well when you are an inpatient for that long," notes Stevens.
His treatment for AML consisted of chemotherapy to eliminate the cancer cells, a process which also unfortunately eliminates normal cells that may be present in the bone marrow. For this reason, patients remain in the hospital during treatment since they are at risk for infection caused by a low white blood count. It takes several weeks for the bone marrow to recover and start producing normal cells.
The side effects of treatment were minimal in Stevens' case. "I lost my hair while I was having the intravenous chemotherapy during my hospital stay, and there was a slight bit of nausea," he says. He also had periodic bone marrow aspirations -- a test where bone marrow is extracted from the pelvic bone with a special needle for examination in the laboratory -- to monitor his condition.
In August 2002, Stevens received the good news that he was in remission. He then began a year-long course of an oral drug, called Zarnestra, as part of his maintenance therapy to give him the best chance for a total cure. Doctors at UMGCC are among those studying the effectiveness of the drug in a clinical trial.
Barry Stevens has now been in remission for four years. He returns to the Stoler Pavilion, UMGCC's outpatient center for cancer care, for his checkups every two months.
Following his recovery, and with a renewed appreciation for life, Stevens decided to return to school for an associates degree in criminal justice. His positive feelings about his experience at the cancer center led him to accept a job in the medical center's security department in 2004. He is now working towards his bachelor's degree in the field at Towson University.
"I had an amazing experience at the cancer center. Everyone was so good to me -- Dr. Gojo, nurse practitioner Michael Tidwell, the nurses, the techs, everyone," he says.
Patients who don't have a relapse of AML within five years are considered likely to be cured. Stevens has now been in remission for four years and he and his care team are optimistic that he may remain in long-term remission.
Each day brings a new joy to Barry Stevens' life. On any given work day, he is stationed at one of dozens of different security locations around the medical center campus. "I love the work I do. I see all the people who took care of me here every day at work, which is great," he says.
He volunteers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society speakers bureau and also takes time out to meet with newly diagnosed leukemia patients at UMGCC to share his experience. He and wife Candice recently added to their family; their third child was born in July, exactly four years after his cancer diagnosis. And their newest daughter's middle name is "Ivana," in honor of Dr. Gojo. "We call her our 'life goes on' baby," he beams.