COLUMBIA CITY — Leshia Howell’s youngest child literally saved her life.
With two toddlers under age two, Howell wasn’t planning for anymore children.
She wasn’t planning for anything that happened that year.
Howell, who lives in Columbia City, learned of her surprise pregnancy in 1998, with a one-year-old and a two-year-old. Little did she know, the unexpected pregnancy was a miracle in disguise.
“It was a definite surprise,” Howell said.
A pregnant mom of two toddlers, Howell noticed her pregnancy was taking more of a toll on her body. She was exhausted, she had unexplained bruising, and her left side was especially painful.
“I dismissed those problems, thinking they were pregnancy symptoms,” Howell said. “I thought I pulled a muscle in my side. I thought I had bruising from being extra clumsy. I was tired, but I was chasing two toddlers.”
She went in for routine prenatal bloodwork, and got a phone call the next day that would change her life forever.
“They suspected something was wrong,” Howell said. “They said things like, lupus, arthritis and a rare type of leukemia. None of them sounded fun.”
While sitting in the waiting room alone for her second blood test, Howell, a nurse herself, could hear the nurses talking, saying, “she’s only 34 and she’s pregnant.”
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘my life is about to change,’” Howell said. “I knew something was wrong.”
Howell’s obstetrician told her she may have leukemia, and she needed to see an oncologist.
“As a nurse, I knew a little about a lot of things,” Howell said. “I was going through my books, and was convinced I only had six months to live. I’m usually a positive person, but in this instance, I was trying to prepare for the worst.”
While waiting to meet with her oncologist, Howell received more difficult news — the baby she was carrying had a “very high” chance for down syndrome, based on an optional prenatal test.
“In a matter of two weeks, I found out I had cancer and I might have a special needs baby,” Howell said. “All I could think was, ‘I might be dying, leaving my toddlers alone without their mommy.’”
Howell went in for an extensive, 1.5 hour ultrasound where doctors took many measurements, checking for signs of down syndrome, such as the distance between the baby’s eyes, and the length of the knuckles and femur.
“From the ultrasound, the doctor told me he thought I was having a boy,” Howell said. “But I didn’t believe him. I was dreaming about shopping for the baby — and everything was pink.”
The results of the ultrasound showed no sign of down syndrome, but Howell had an amniocentesis to find out for certain.
“I am a planner. If I had a special needs baby, I just wanted to be prepared,” Howell said.
She had to wait 10 days for the results of the amniocentesis. Between waiting for the results and waiting to meet with an oncologist, Howell was on the verge of a breakdown.
“I remember sitting on the floor with books open all around me,” Howell said. “My husband walked in and tears were pouring from my eyes. I told him I was looking for answers, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. He closed all the books and told me to stop. I remember that moment like it was yesterday.
“It was 18 years ago, but this is still so raw — it doesn’t define who I am, but it’s a part of who I am.”
The day of the appointment with her oncologist, fear surrounded her.
“I was about to be sentenced,” Howell said. “I could either receive probation — just a slap on the hand — a life sentence, or, the death penalty. The walk from the car to the office was like I was walking down death row.”
It was moments later that Howell found out her baby saved her life.
Her leukemia was caught so early that doctors would be able to treat it before it took her life. Howell was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a rare form that typically presents itself in older men — she was only the third in the world who had been diagnosed with that type of leukemia while pregnant.
Hairy cell leukemia typically isn’t diagnosed until it is found in bone marrow. Howell’s leukemia was found in its very early stages — it was only in her blood.
“We caught it so early, it was earlier than they’d ever caught it before,” Howell said. “The cancer was very slow progressing.”
The doctor told Howell that hairy cell leukemia was the best-case scenario for her pregnancy — there was a treatment that could be done after the baby was born, as long as Howell was monitored closely.
“The bad news was, I had leukemia. The good news — it was the type I wanted to have,” Howell said.
Days later, Howell found out the results from her amniocentesis. Her baby did not have down syndrome. She also had some other interesting news from her doctor.
“He said I was having a girl,” Howell said. “I had dreams about having a girl with big brown eyes and brown hair — and that’s my Katie. She looks just like that.”
With back-to-back positive news, Howell got a boost of strength.
“My sentence wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Howell said.
As her pregnancy progressed, Howell’s doctors continued to check her blood counts closely to monitor the progression of the leukemia.
When she was almost full-term, Howell’s blood counts dropped dangerously low, and she had to be induced.
The doctor prescribed a seven-day dose of chemotherapy that typically requires a two-week hospital stay in isolation.
Being a homecare infusion nurse, Howell begged her doctor to allow her to be home with her children.
“They made it happen,” Howell said. “My coworkers took care of my chemo for me.”
Three days into the treatment she became very sick, but, the treatment did it’s job. After a painful bone marrow biopsy, Howell found out she was cancer-free.
“You never know how strong you are until that’s the only choice you have,” Howell said. “I could either crawl under the covers and cry, or live every day to the fullest. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Have fun. Laugh. Appreciate the little things in life. That’s how I chose to look at things. This baby saved my life.”
Had Howell not had her prenatal bloodtesting, the cancer may have progressed beyond treatment. Researchers haven’t determined what causes hairy cell, or many other types of leukemia, but are on the verge of breakthroughs in many areas — including treatment of the less-treatable forms.
That’s why Howell wants to push forward in the fight for the cure.
Howell has become very active in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She was named an honor hero in the 2016 Light the Night Walk in Fort Wayne. This year, she was nominated as the LLS Woman of the Year. She’s now part of a campaign to bring awareness to and raise money for leukemia and lymphoma research.
Three men and three women are nominated for the Man of the Year and Woman of the Year awards. The man and woman who raise the most money by late May will earn the title.
“It’s my turn to give back to LLS,” Howell said. “Without their treatment, I wouldn’t be here. If I can pay it forward and help find an end to all blood cancers, I will do what I can.”
Howell is a community health educator for Parkview Noble Hospital in Kendallville. Prior to working at Parkview Noble, she was an ER nurse in Whitley County for seven years. Her youngest daughter, Katie, is a senior at Churubusco High School.
Ride for the Cure
Howell’s biggest fundraising campaign will be centered in Columbia City with a motorcycle ride that concludes in a large downtown event.
The Ride for the Cure will be held Saturday, May 13, starting at Harley Davidson of Fort Wayne, 6315 Illinois Road. The ride ends in Columbia City, where there will be a silent auction, live music, food, drinks and various vendors 5-9 p.m. on the Courthouse Square. The public is invited to the downtown event, regardless of participation in the motorcycle ride.
The cost for the ride is $25 for a single rider and $35 for a double rider. The cost includes a meal and one raffle ticket per person.
People may pre-register online at mwoy.org/pages/in/neindiana17/gmannf, or register the day-of 11:30-12:30 at the Harley Davidson.
Those wishing to contribute to the cause through a donation for the silent auction, volunteering at the event or making a monetary donation may contact Howell at 415-0015.