By Cypress Cove Retired Public Relations Coordinator, Ed Stransenback
Dale and Bettie Phillips moved to Fort Myer’s Gateway area from Maryland in 1991 for, as Bettie notes, “all the reasons that most of you came to Florida … retirement, warm weather, golf, beach, and to enjoy a life of vacation after years and years of work.”
Sixteen years earlier (1975), the couple traded vows. They first met when Dale became manager of a Maryland district AT&T office where Bettie worked. She remembers the day of their first meeting as if it were yesterday. As a midlevel manager in the office’s operator services department, Bettie was responsible for training new employees.
“So,” explains Bettie with a wink, “when into my office walked this suave, handsome man, I merely thought it was just another person sent for me to train. I remember leaning over to another office employee and saying, ‘here comes another one.’”
But Dale was not just “another one.” He would become “THE ONE.” On that day, their lives would change forever. A cherished relationship that spans nearly 50 years also includes a loving his-and-her family.
From the beginning, they held many common interests and values. Both loved to travel, both held a deep faith, and each valued the love and support of the other. Their travels included lots of cruises by ship and exploration by car—with auto travel as their favorite mode of transportation.
In 1991, the move to Gateway began another exciting and memorable chapter in their life. Locally, their involvement in the formation of a community Lutheran church gave them an opportunity to worship in their faith and meet their new neighbors. “Our church was small,” notes Bettie. “So, all (parishioners) shared in the duties of ministries, maintenance, and everything else that needed to be done.”
Their new lifestyle blossomed, and church activities offered what became an important extension of their family life. Socially, Bettie enjoyed playing golf. And as the first two years of their retirement joyfully zipped by, Bettie became focused on her daughter Terry’s upcoming marriage in Maryland.
However, as the wedding neared, Bettie found herself tiring quickly from the slightest activity. Golf became a task… fighting through nine holes of play. She said little about her health because she wanted nothing to disrupt Terry’s wedding.
Her health issues, though, did not go unnoticed by Terry. She was a nurse and told her mother to have a blood test when she returned to Gateway.
Bettie obliged, and her doctor quickly ordered a follow-up test after initial test results revealed an abnormally high red blood cell count. Further testing confirmed that Bettie had developed a rare form of leukemia, known as acute myeloid leukemia (AML). There were few successful treatment options available in the early 1990s.
Periodic platelet and red cell transfusions gave her short-term relief from the condition of fatigue. However, transfusions were no cure from this deadly disease. Her doctor suggested she seek medical care elsewhere. She opted to reach out to medical staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital—a facility known for its medically advanced research programs.
In 1993, AML accounted for 18% of total leukemia cases worldwide and there was no cure. It is cancer of the blood and bone marrow–the tissue inside bones where blood cells are made. The terminology “acute” denotes the disease’s rapid progression that quickly develops nonfunctional cells that crowd out normal cells–ultimately impairing the body’s ability to fight infections.
The diagnosis struck Bettie and Dale like a lightning bolt. But in retrospect, Bettie handled her AML battle with incredible grace.
Fittingly, Bettie credits her and Dale’s faith and the support and prayers from their church congregation for providing the strength needed in her fight for good health. Selecting Johns Hopkins for her care added greater comfort because they would be in Maryland near their children.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins suggested that Bettie undergo a difficult ground-breaking bone marrow transplant in which unhealthy red blood cells are replaced with healthy ones. She needed a donor whose tissue type matched hers. A perfect match would be preferable but was rarely available (a one in 100,000 chance).
Bettie’s three sisters all offered donor assistance, and miraculously her youngest sister tested as a perfect six-marker match. The news encouraged her doctors, and they urged her to move forward with transplantation plans. Bettie initially balked after being told that her survival chances were no more than 30 percent.
“The procedure,” explains Bettie, “takes you to the brink of death where the body is stripped entirely of its red blood cells and then quickly replaced through bone marrow transplantation capable of producing heathy new red blood cells.” If one cancer cell remains in the body, it will quickly reproduce.
She and Dale went home to Gateway. Bettie had all but pushed aside any thoughts of transplantation. But one day she received a call from her Johns Hopkins’ doctor who asked why her name was not posted on the transplantation procedure list. He told her that without the transplant, she had a zero percent chance of survival. Dale was listening on another phone, and he quickly nodded his head approvingly.
The procedure, Bettie recalls, “was a surreal, frightening yet unexplainably peaceful” moment that even to this day Bettie finds difficult to express spiritually and emotionally. “You will know it when you have it.”
In 1995, bone marrow transplantation was still a new, somewhat experimental procedure for an older adult. The survival rate was extremely low due in part to the difficulty then (the mid-90s) of finding an ideal donor. Today, the transplantation procedure is supported through a comprehensive national donor-bank program.
The day of her procedure, friends from their Gateway church held a day-long prayer vigil. Long after her recovery, she was given a chart with the names and times of those providing her with prayer support. Twenty-six years later, she cherishes the chart and keeps it in a special place.
Against long odds, Bettie survived the procedure. She is 26 years removed from the pioneering procedure and a most difficult and lengthy 10-year process. Her treatment required periodic platelet and red cell transfusions until full recovery.
Bettie would recover while living in a bubble free of plants and pets (both have the capability of transmitting deadly pathogens and harmful contagious bacteria/viruses). The body’s immune system takes a very long time to reach a point where it can fend off the least of infections. Most restrictions were lifted by doctors in 2005 after she was proclaimed cancer free. Twenty-six years later, she lives with some imposed restrictions that she knows will remain for the rest of her life.
Being declared cured by her doctors was an exciting, yet emotional moment for Bettie and Dale, giving them both great pause about the journey taken. Bettie’s faith, the support of her loving husband, their family and friends, and the strength of her hope prevailed against some very long odds.
Hope is an ideal that Bettie wants everyone to take away from her story of trials and tribulations. She is a great example that nothing can dim the light that shines from within.