The Little Sister Who Plotted Her Brother’s Leukemia Cure

Back behind the counter of McDonald’s and hidden from customers’ views, was a set of stairs. A long, steep set of stairs that led down to the basement where rows of shelves stored extra Big Mac boxes, straws and chicken nugget sauces.

Andy Gilliland was a young go-getter manager at that McDonald’s in December of 1989. He was a 23-year-old guy who played basketball, hung out with friends and had just returned from a trip to Florida.

But those stairs.

Ever since he had gotten back from the beach vacation, they seemed steeper. The path to the basement seemed longer. Climbing up to restaurant level felt like scaling a mountain.

Then one shift, right before Christmas, Andy was so exhausted he slipped into the restroom so he could sit down in the stall – so he could take a rest without anyone noticing. But his boss found him

“Are you OK, Andy?” he asked.

No. He wasn’t OK. But Andy didn’t know why – until the weakness and weariness he’d been living with became unbearable. Until a massive lump popped up on the back of his neck.

The day after Christmas, Andy was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia – an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the white blood cells. It often occurs in children and is treated with success. In adults, the rate of survival is much lower.

“I remember asking the doctor if I was going to die,” Andy said.

He was immediately started on chemotherapy. But after six weeks of it, and no improvement, the doctor made things clear to him.

“His words were, ‘You need to go for broke,’” Andy said. “‘You need to have a bone marrow transplant. You need to go to IU (Health).’”

And so, that was the plan -- a bone marrow transplant. But would there be a good match? And could it happen in time to save him? Andy didn’t know it then, but the answer to both of those questions was yes.

He just so happened to have a little sister at home who was plotting his cure.

***

Rebecca Gilliland had heard the whispers inside her Greenfield, Ind., home, the adult whispers.  That’s how she found out her big brother even had leukemia. She was in the bathroom and overheard her aunt and grandma talking.

Andy has cancer. It isn’t good.

She felt sick to her stomach. She was 15, a freshman in high school. She was a three-sport athlete. She should have been in that carefree time of life. She loved McDonald’s fries dipped in hot mustard sauce; Andy would bring them home to her.  She loved pestering him, as little sisters often do.

But day after day, the whispers kept coming. More whispers Rebecca overheard. Then, she started listening for them.

The chemo’s not working. Bone marrow transplant.  10 percent chance of survival.

Rebecca began whispering to herself.

I have to help him. There must be something I can do.

She’ll never forget the night she walked into the kitchen where her parents, Jack and Carole, sat and she looked at them. She looked at them with intensity and with the wisdom of someone three times her age.

“You know, I’ll do whatever I need to do,” Rebecca said to them. “I’ll give Andy whatever he needs.”

They looked sad. They looked proud. They looked relieved. Sad that their young teen was even having to think of these kinds of things. Proud that on her own, without being asked, she was offering this from her heart. Relieved because Andy now might just have a chance.

How a 15-year-old had the strength to step up, well, Rebecca says anyone – even any teen – would have done the same thing.

“I remember thinking, ‘Just get the bone marrow in him so he doesn’t die,’” Rebecca said. “I knew it was a means to an end.”

At least she hoped it was.

***

She sat in the room at University Hospital laughing hysterically. Rebecca didn’t want her mom to see her cry.

It hurt so badly, the test they were doing to see if she was a match for Andy. She was scared. She was in pain. But she laughed.

“I remember the doctor looking at my mom and saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Rebecca said.   

As Andy lay in a hospital bed, tests revealed his little sister was as good of a match as they ever could have hoped for.

“They called it a perfect match. We don’t know all the medical details, but that’s what they called it,” Rebecca said. “They were floored.”

On May 22, 1990, Rebecca was in a Notre Dame basketball shirt with a gold cross necklace ready for the bone marrow transplant. Andy had heard that this transplant was his only chance. He gave Rebecca that cross necklace before the surgery so she would always remember him.

So she would never forget what this meant to him.

***

Bone marrow transplants are common now. In 1990 at IU Health, they weren’t.

While the first bone marrow transplant nationwide happened in 1968, the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the IU School of Medicine wasn’t established until 1984, six years before Andy’s surgery.  Indiana’s first bone marrow transplant had just taken place five years earlier, at Riley Hospital for Children in 1985.

So when Rebecca and Andy came to University Hospital, bone marrow transplants weren’t something people commonly talked about when it came to cancer, like chemotherapy or radiation.

The procedure had picked up steam, however, as oncologists and hematologists saw its success. And as the 1970s hit, bone marrow transplants were being done at hospitals nationwide.

“I would not say a (bone marrow transplant) was rare in 1990,” said Kenneth Cornetta, M.D., who came to IU Health in 1991 and specializes in medical and molecular genetics. “But it was not the volume that was built up over the following decade.”

Andy’s surgeon at IU Health in 1990 was Dr. Jan Jansen, the same man who performed Riley’s first bone marrow transplant.

He was in good hands.

***

The transplant went smoothly, but Andy had many rough spots. His mom, Carole, was told at least three times her son might not make it. Family and friends were called to the hospital to say their goodbyes. Andy’s kidneys were failing. Andy was retaining fluid. He was in isolation, with plastic surrounding his bed.

Rebecca remembers only being able to hold her brother’s hand through a hole in the plastic.

But the transplant, it was sticking. Andy had known -- at least he had willed it -- all along that his marrow would one day be clean.

“At night, I would go to bed envisioning my bone marrow was a river and it was just clean,” Andy said. “I can remember every single night, it was just like a clean river flowing.”

Andy got past those rough spots. He started walking through hospital hallways. He putted golf balls from his room to his friend in the room across the hall. He got his strength back.

In June of 1990, the day before his 24th birthday, Andy got the best gift ever.

He went home.

Andy and Rebecca are back at University Hospital, 27 years later. They are here to talk about that journey nearly three decades ago. To see where Andy stayed all those months.

Things look different. Yet, things feel the same. Andy reminisces about how he would lay in his hospital bed on the sixth floor and watch a parking garage being built out the window.

“That was my entertainment,” he says.

Rebecca remembers the morphine her brother took for the pain and how it brought some much-needed humor. She remembers the night he broke out of his rom with his IVs attached because he thought someone was out there hurting his sister. She remembers the more serious times, when he got really bad, and how he swore a man in sandals was sitting by his bed every night with him.

They have with them a tattered T-shirt in a plastic bag, an Ocean Pacific volleyball T-shirt. It was Andy’s favorite when he stayed in the hospital. Nurses let him wear it instead of the hospital gown but it had to stay sterile.  Every time the laundry was taken from his room, the sheets and such, so was the shirt to be bleached. That’s why it’s so worn and tattered and faded. It’s a wonderful memory.

They talk about Carole. Their beloved Carole, the mother who was there every single step of the fight. Carole, who in a sad and ironic twist, years later died from her own battle with acute myeloid leukemia in 2009. Their dad, Jack, who has been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is battling his own form of cancer, though it is treatable. And Debbie, their older sister, who fought the battle with all of them.

Andy remembers the day he finally got out of the hospital, how vivid the colors seemed outside. He knew the grass was green, but it looked so very green, a color like he’d never seen before.

He was still recovering and cold from low blood cell counts, but it was 90 degrees and it was summer and he wanted to be free – outside.

So, when Andy got home, he spent day after day after day just sitting outside in a lawn chair wrapped in blankets and winter coats. He sat there staring into the countryside, until darkness hit.

Because he could.

***

Now 42, Rebecca has an educational doctorate and is a distinguished professor of service learning and associate professor of communications at the University of Indianapolis. She is the mother to three children, Xavier, 13, Jude, 11, and Sydney, 8.

Andy is 50 now. He owns two Firehouse Subs franchises, one in Greenfield and one in Franklin. And every summer, he runs the Andy Gilliland & Friends Annual Golf Benefit at Arrowhead Golf Course in Greenfield. For more than two decades, that benefit has raised money to help someone fighting cancer.

He is also the father of a 15-year-old son, Brady. A boy who is the exact same age Rebecca was when she asked to be his bone marrow donor.

It’s almost hard to believe now, Andy says. At the time, he may not have quite understood the gravity of it all.  

“The more I know, I mean, if I had known how hard it is for people to find a donor, it’s unbelievable,” he says. “It definitely feels great, to know she did that for me.”

To know a little sister plotted to save his life.

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
 Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.


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