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She’s battled Acute Myeloid Leukemia twice and Rollanna Sauberlich said she wouldn’t be alive now if it wasn’t for the love and support of her mom and her family.
Sitting in an infusion pod at IU Health Simon Cancer Center, Helen Ringer fights tears as she talks about the rocky road her daughter traveled. In February of 2016 – just a year after her son was born – Rollanna Sauberlich was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).
“I had extreme pain in my hip to the point I couldn’t walk. I thought I had a pinched nerve so I was going to a chiropractor. By the time I was diagnosed with AML I was 97 percent leukemia cells. Another two weeks and I wouldn’t be here,” said Sauberlich, a resident of Culver, IN.
To hear her talk, to see the pictures of her when she was at her lowest point, and then to see her now is something her mom says is just short of a miracle. A former high school homecoming queen candidate, Sauberlich’s petite frame dropped 67 pounds at one point. She lost all of her blonde hair; her hands, feet and nose turned black; she lost some of her nails; and her right arm had a large wound.
“At one point she had multiple doctors all working together to keep their ducks in a row and make sure the individually prescribed medications weren’t interfering with each other,” said Ringer.
Her initial trip to ER back home resulted in two x-rays. The first one revealed white spots on her spine that doctors initially thought was Histoplasmosis – more commonly known as “bird flu.” A follow up scan resulted in the diagnosis of AML. She began induction and consolidation chemotherapy at a Fort Wayne hospital and was in remission until Thanksgiving 2016. A relapse sent her back to the hospital for more chemotherapy.
“I reached remission and we scheduled a bone marrow transplant at IU but I got very sick with sepsis so it was postponed,” said Sauberlich, 46. She had her transplant on March 8, 2017 and things began to look up.
“The transplant went well but on March 21, everything changed. It is a day I will never forget. It was a nightmare. She had multiple side effects,” said Ringer. “All of her organs shut down. She was on dialysis. Her heart was operating at 20 percent. We almost lost her but we weren’t giving up. They called all the family in,” said Ringer. Sauberlich has six siblings. She also has a daughter, 27, and two grandsons.
“Rollonna’s family stayed by her side the entire time. Family rotated according to work schedules. When Rollonna got very sick, they gathered together for love and support, filling the bone marrow transplant family area,” said IU Health medical social worker Kim Baker. “Rollonna gets the grand prize. Although she missed her two-year-old son beyond measure, she championed through her difficult journey in order to return to him.”
In addition to contracting the life-threatening sepsis, Sauberlich developed a Protein C deficiency – a condition that increases the risk for abnormal blood clotting. With lack of blood flow, her nose, fingers and toes turned black.
“There was talk of amputating but Dr. Mohammad Abu Zaid said to wait it out. I’m forever grateful to him. Nature took its course and the circulation came back,” said Sauberlich. “With all that happened I spent nearly two out of three years in the hospital.”
She was released from the hospital in May of 2017 and moved with her mom into an apartment near the hospital. For nine months, she couldn’t shower and she could barely walk. Her mom drove her to the hospital and helped care for her wounds. When they moved home, Ringer moved in with her daughter for the remainder of the year. And when Sauberlich returned to IU Health Simon Cancer Center recently for a follow up appointment and preventative infusion Ringer again accompanied her.
“I learned from mom to be strong and keep fighting. My sister left her family and job for three months. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my loving and supportive family and the grace of God,” said Sauberlich, the second to the youngest including four older brothers.
“It’s been a group effort. Her sister took family leave and all of her siblings supported her during head shaving parties. They’ve always been close,” said Ringer. “They treated her like a baby doll when she was growing up and they were very nurturing when she was at her worst. It’s wonderful having her back. It’s been a long road and I didn’t know if she’d make it but never gave up hope.”
--By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health. Reach Banes via email firstname.lastname@example.org.