Thirteen years Debi Schuiling was given just two weeks to live Thanks to a ‘medical miracle’, at 49 this school co-founder and communications manager from Cape Town is relishing life
Debi Schuiling couldn’t understand why her neck was so stiff. The string of medical professionals she consulted over six months attributed it to stress; after all, she was a busy mother in her thirties and had just opened a school in Blouberg. But her neck stiffness and fatigue worsened until she couldn’t drive or bath her children, Maxine, five, and Finley, two. After her son’s GP insisted on another blood test, she received a shocking diagnosis: aggressive acute myloid leukaemia.
Debi was rushed to SABMR co-founder Professor Peter Jacobs at Constantiaberg Mediclinic; without treatment, he estimated, she had a mere two weeks left, so chemotherapy began immediately. Meanwhile, the SABMR had begun searching for a donor. For a year they tested possible matches. ‘We were getting desperate,’ recalls Debi. Eventually, ‘we got a call out of the blue to say they’d found a match from the US.’ Debi’s transplant was booked. ‘I knew the risks and made preparations at home in case I didn’t survive. While I was packing Maxine sat on my suitcase and asked me not to go. ‘Are you going to come back, Mom?’ she asked. I cried with her and assured her I’d do my very best to come home as soon as I could.’
The transplant entailed high doses of radiation and chemotherapy. After five weeks Debi was discharged but suffered setbacks including contracting the cytomegla virus, and became so ill that she couldn’t walk and struggled to eat. Perhaps the turning point was the day Maxine, in Grade One, said, ‘Mom, you have not packed my lunch once this year or signed my homework book’. Says Debi, ‘I wanted more than anything to be a mom who could be a daily part of my children’s lives. One day I could keep food down and another day I could slowly get up. Gradually I grew stronger.’
She praises the transplant unit’s heroic staff, her ‘amazing’ mother, sister and nieces, and her ex-husband: now divorced, she looks back with gratitude for his support, which included founding the committed ‘Miles for Marrow’ cycling team to raise awareness about bone marrow donation.
Debi recently contacted the SABMR, who permitted her to email her donor. ‘I plan to visit America with my kids and meet her. She got onto the registry because a toddler in her town needed a donor, and years later was surprised to get the call saying she was a match for me. She realised it wasn’t something she could not do. It was very selfless.’
These days Debi runs, goes for gourmet dinners with her foodie daughter, a UCT student, and takes weekend road trips with the kids. She celebrates both her actual birthday and her transplant birthday, for which her children once organised a surprise party with sixty guests!
‘I definitely don’t sweat the small things any more. And I don’t take my children for granted; we’re very close,’ she says. Now working in a less demanding role, she’s given talks about her medical miracle and visited leukaemia patients ‘to show them there is hope’. Judging by statistics, Debi feels she was not someone who was expected to survive: ‘If you believe you can, I think half the journey is won.’
She adds, ‘I am forever humbled by the selfless act of my donor, without whom I would not have survived. How different my children’s lives would have been.’