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Let My Story Inspire Yours: Karen Takla Farag

2012 was not the best year for me… Let’s just say I truly believe stress can kill you.

I started off the year by divorcing my husband, then getting laid off and ended it being diagnosed with AML (Acute Myeloid Leukemia). I was 38 years old, had a 5 year old son who just entered kindergarten and was hoping to start my life over.

I remember it like it was yesterday

My symptoms started on the day we were wiped out by Hurricane Sandy and got progressively worse until I had a fever and cough that I couldn’t shake. I was always super excited for the holidays, but for some reason, no matter what I did, I just couldn’t motivate myself to find the energy to decorate my tree or the strength to lift the boxes of ornaments.

On Christmas day at my parents’ house, my family was worried because I “looked grey.” Up until this point, I really wasn’t that nervous. But on Christmas, I woke up with blood blisters all over my mouth, tongue and chest. I knew something wasn’t right, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be cancer.

On December 26, 2012, I went to the doctor thinking I was probably anemic, but as soon as my doctor took one look at me he sent me over to the emergency room.

Worry followed weakness

After hours and hours of blood drawing, I started to get worried that something was seriously wrong.

Why hadn’t they stopped doing tests after the first few vials of blood?

I can remember a very elderly lady who had the spot next to me. Since we were only separated by a curtain, I could hear the doctor deliver the news that she had lung cancer. Although she was probably 90 years old, I was practically in tears hearing them give her the news. Little did I know… 5 minutes later… a doctor with a shiny, bald head would walk straight over to me, like a soldier, not hesitating at all before announcing, “Sometimes we have to tell people bad news. You have a blood disease.” “You mean like leukemia?” I asked. Yes. It was… and the worst possible type.

Then came the isolation

I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. Everything inside of me just started to feel like it was boiling over; the room was spinning like I was drunk. I don’t even think I cried. From that point on, I felt like I was watching myself in a movie, from above, while I went through all of my tests, chemotherapy treatments, shaving my head… none of it seemed like reality.

The worst part of being in the hospital in isolation for 5 months was that I didn’t get to see my son, Christian.

Before my diagnosis, I actually worked at this hospital calculating bonuses for doctors IF leukemia patients lived more than 1 year. Once I was admitted, I would hear people screaming like they were in the worst pain you could ever imagine; I would walk the unit and look into people’s rooms. Even though I tried my hardest not to, for my own mental health, my curiosity got the best of me.

It was at that moment that I decided I just couldn’t let my son or my parents see me like that. I couldn’t let myself start that downward spiral into depression because I didn’t think I would be able to come back from it.

I never let myself down

I tried my hardest to be positive, and to “never stop believing in hope because miracles happen every day.” One of my favorite things to pass the days was watching Jerry Springer with my dad. All of the nurses used to get a kick out of us laughing together. So much so that at my 18-month mark, my favorite nurse who is now my “sister,” got us tickets to see the show live! The smiling faces of my family members, the daily phone calls from my best friends, 250 people coming out for my bone marrow drive, the happy faces of the nurses. All of these wonderful things helped me rally, stay positive, strong and know that having a positive attitude was half the battle.

I didn’t crawl into a corner. I chose to stand and fight because I needed to be here and see my son grow up. Of course, I was so scared, but I didn’t give up. I thought of everything I needed to live for and prepared for the difficult times ahead. Even in the darkest moments, we never stopped hoping that God would come through with a miracle.

My angel

About 2 months into my treatments, I found out that I was blessed with a bone marrow donor. She was a 38-year-old woman from Europe who was a perfect match; 10 out of 10.

My transplant took place on March 13. All of our prayers were answered by this anonymous angel, a stranger whose marrow was going to save my life. The television was on in order to distract us from the seriousness of what was happening, and about 2 minutes after the marrow began to enter my body, the smoke rose from the Vatican letting the world know they had chosen a new Pope. At that moment, I knew I was going to be ok, that my transplant was going to be successful. It was a sign.

Over the next few months, my angel and I exchanged emotional, anonymous letters. By reading it, I could clearly tell English was not her native language but I knew she had a big heart. I carried the letter around with me for almost two years. I read it hundreds of times, crying each time as much as I did the day I first received it. The last line read, “You are always with me, my marrow is always available.”

Every day that I woke up and put my feet on the ground, I would think about her. Every night she would be in my prayers.

The years have not been easy

I had many complications of blood clots, severe graft-versus-host disease and I’m still going through photopheresis treatments, but it’s all worth it. Every day I get to see my son, hug him, kiss him, cuddle him and tell him how much he means to me.

I started off wondering if I would see him start first grade and last month I brought him to school to start fourth. This was all because of the love and support from my amazing family, friends, nurses, doctors and the selflessness of an amazing stranger.

Karen Takla Farag

Worth the wait

I had to wait two years until I could get my angel’s information… if she allowed it.

March 13, 2015, was my 2-year “rebirthday.” That morning, I woke up to a cryptic text where the only thing I could understand was the word “blood.” I then checked my Facebook page and saw I had a request to mark me as a “sister.”

It was her, my angel. The woman I dreamed of meeting and thanking in person for the past two years.

Everyone wanted to meet her and thank her for her selflessness, so my parents flew her and her entourage of 7 people to visit us in New Jersey. It was the best 2 weeks, and we all felt like we had known one another forever. We now had family in Germany, but the funniest part about it is that we both had the same maiden name! Takla. Really? That’s not a common name, so it must have been destiny.

Karen Takla Farag

I’ll be forever grateful for my donor and love her in a way that no one could ever imagine.

I had cancer, but it never, ever had me.

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