Reds rally to help front-office employee beat cancer
Herrell gets lifesaving bone-marrow transplant thanks to donor drives
CINCINNATI -- It is Chris Herrell's expectation that Thanksgiving 2013 will be normal and relaxing and include little more than family, food and football. After the year the Reds season sales manager experienced, that's more than enough for holiday fulfillment.
What will be missing from the Herrell house, and not welcome to return, is doubt. Because of a bone-marrow transplant earlier this year, he survived the threat to his life from a rare form of blood cancer.
"Being with family means the world to me," Herrell said of this Thanksgiving. "Last year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, you still had this thought in the back of my mind, 'I still don't have a donor or anything.' Never at any point did I think I wasn't going to make it. At some point you're like, 'What if I don't?' Now I don't have to really worry about that."
It was just before Thanksgiving one year ago that Herrell learned why he had been ailing. In September while he and his wife, Laurie, were completing the adoption of baby daughter Alani in Arkansas, something didn't feel right.
Herrell, an experienced runner with a marathon and half-marathon under his belt, was struggling with his breathing and had trouble finishing even a short distance.
"Things work in strange ways," Herrell said. "If we knew I had this condition before we adopted the baby, there's no way we would have been allowed to. Looking back, I had this when we went to Arkansas to complete the adoption. I was going out for a run and I would run three miles but end up stopping five or six times. That's not me. I've never had to stop when running."
By October, Herrell was undergoing tests to find out what was wrong. A few weeks later, there was an answer. He had myelodysplastic anemia, a blood cancer that attacks red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Not only did the Herrells have a new baby at home, they also have two young sons in 9-year-old Chase and 3-year-old Rickson.
Initially, a weakened Herrell went to the hospital weekly to be given blood transfusions. But that was only a temporary, and eventually ineffective, stopgap. The best bet to beat the disease was a bone-marrow transplant.
There was one huge problem standing between Herrell and his getting the bone marrow he needed for survival -- a match for a donor.
"I probably would have lasted a few more months," Herrell said. "The blood transfusions could only last so long."
Those who cared about Herrell cast a wide net in the search for a donor. The family hooked up with the Be The Match Foundation, a nation's leader in bone-marrow transplantations that helps provide funding and resources to get positive outcomes to cases like Herrell's. Laurie began a blog to document her husband's journey and it wasn't long before his work family got involved.
Herrell, 40, is a 15-year employee of the Reds.
"You become longtime friends and then it becomes almost like a family member," said Jamie Ramsey, the Reds' assistant director of media relations and digital content. "You take interest in their well-being and families. When a family member gets sick, you want to do anything you can to help them. That's kind of what happened with Chris."
By February, the Reds and all of their employees took action and held a daylong donor drive at the team's Hall of Fame. It was publicized through various media platforms and the turnout was large with over 700 people.
Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini showed the public just how easy it was to be screened as a potential donor. On camera for a television news morning show, Castellini had the inside of his mouth swabbed after filling out a questionnaire.
The Reds held another donor drive at their Spring Training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., and friends of Herrell held their own drives in Louisville and Owensboro, Ky. Nearly 800 people showed up to provide sample swabs at Pattison Elementary School in Milford, Ohio. Approximately 2,500 people overall registered to be bone-marrow donors, not counting those who went online at bethematch.org to register.
"It meant the world. There was no way we could have done this on our own and gotten that amount of people to register," Herrell said.
About two months later, a donor was finally located -- from a male in Germany. While it wasn't a perfect match, it was considered more than close enough to be optimistic.
To prepare for the transplant, Herrell went into Jewish Hospital-Kenwood to undergo a blast of chemotherapy over five days. With his immune system down, he was quarantined in a sterile environment as any germ exposure could have been fatal.
On April 23, after seven days in the hospital, Herrell was given his bone-marrow transplant. It was pretty much like getting a blood transfusion. He just sat and watched television in seemingly routine fashion. All the while, however, the two-hour procedure was literally giving him a new chance at life.
"It's my new birthday because it's where I got my reboot basically, to put it mildly," Herrell said. "You have your system completely wiped out and you have a new system put in. It's like getting a whole new battery."
Following the transplant, Herrell spent about three more weeks in the hospital and the team remained vigilant about helping him. Not long after he went home, Reds outfielder Chris Heisey stopped by Herrell's Union Township home to bring his kids toys. Heisey and his wife, Lisa, also took Chase to a game at Great American Ball Park to hang out.
"Chase got to watch batting practice from the dugout and had a chance to meet some of the players. The Heiseys are great people," Herrell said.
In October, shortly after the Reds were defeated in the National League Wild Card Game by the Pirates, there was a still a day worth celebrating. It was the day that Herrell finally returned to work at Great American Ball Park.
"The day we welcomed him back, we lined up a gauntlet where he walked through," Ramsey said. "People were tearing up. It was quite moving."
For the time being, Herrell is still trying to conserve energy and works at the office every other day with two days a week working from home. Not yet at full strength, he was told he would be probably by a year after the transplant.
A success rate for his transplant is variable, depending on health and other risk factors. Herrell was a healthy and fit person before getting sick, which improves his outlook.
Herrell said the doctor told him he should be able to live a normal life. There have been some side effects, including graft vs. host disease -- a condition where the donor cells attack the recipient's body. Herrell's case is considered mild as he generally gets dry skin and his face often turns red. He has to be careful of too much sun exposure and wear lots of sun block if he is outdoors. The disease can be controlled through medication.
Throughout his entire ordeal, Herrell largely remained upbeat with the hope he would survive. This year, thanks in part to friends, family and strangers alike, he did just that.
"I'm a pretty positive person," Herrell said. "My faith is pretty strong. Things happen for a reason."