Thrive by IU Health

March 07, 2024

From a deer stand, to more than 100 hospital stays; patient battles leukemia

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

From a deer stand, to more than 100 hospital stays; patient battles leukemia

Dustin Flanigan has made more hospital visits than he cares to count. Each time, he returns home with hope for healing.

By TJ Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

During a recent hospital stay, Dustin Flanigan, 37, worked with IU Health Art Therapist Valeria Guzman to create a mosaic. As Flanigan chose colorful pieces of glass, Guzman asked:

“What broken pieces of your life would you like to put back together?” Flanigan thought and then responded: “I want to stand again. My mind tells me to get up but my body won’t let me.” When Guzman asked who helps Flanigan he said, his mom, his teenage son, and a few friends. They all live in New Castle, Ind. - an hour from IU Health.

dustin flanigan leukemia

Yet, Flanigan has become all too familiar with IU Health Simon Cancer Center. His first stay was in December 2015.

“I was out deer hunting and I passed out in the woods for five and half hours. When I came to there was a buck and two does staring at me,” said Flanigan. With no cell service he crawled on his hands and knees for two hours, pulled himself up into his jeep and drove two miles to his mother’s home. He was rushed to a local hospital .

“My spleen was the size of an NFL football and my white blood count was over 90 million,” said Flanigan. Additional testing showed he had cancer. Further testing was done at IU Health Simon Cancer Center where it was discovered that he has Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a slow progressing blood and bone marrow disease; and also Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer that starts in the white blood cells.

“When I first got to Simon Cancer Center, they couldn’t even start my chemo because the cancer was eating my teeth away. I had to have them all pulled,” said Flanigan. He went in for three bone marrow biopsies where cancer was discovered in his spine, traveling up to his brain. Thirty-five spinal taps with chemo infusion followed.

In November 2016, a University of Pennsylvania Sophomore football player, named Sam Philippi made headlines when he organized a “Be The Match” Donor registration drive. In his efforts to help build a nationwide base for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), Philippi became the face of the cause. He was a bone marrow match for Flanigan.

Three days after the transplant, Flanigan’s body began to reject the donated marrow.

“Since 2016, I’ve been in the hospital around 100 times - probably more,” said Flanigan, who has been in the care of Dr. Jennifer Schwartz. The disease has caused severe skin conditions, taken 30 percent of his vision, and caused blood clots in his lungs. During one of his hospital stays he learned he has a rare blood disorder. His most recent hospital stay came when he had difficulty breathing and learned he had pneumonia. He said he ended up in ICU and was on the verge of coding.

Inside his hospital room is a heart with the question: “What matters most?” Inside the heart is written the word, “Jesus.”

“I used to be an avid hunter and fisherman. I loved mudding and everything outdoors. Now I pray every day and stay focused on my mom and my son,” said Flanigan, who has spent his life working a variety of jobs. His last was a manager of a rental center. He has 18 certifications including those in dog grooming, pet training, fork lift operation, brake repairs, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

He enjoys woodworking and arts and crafts. During his days-long hospital stays he has taken part in music, yoga and art therapies, offered through IU Health’s CompleteLife Program.

While he worked on his mosaic, Flanigan talked about the meaning behind his art. He chose a blue piece of glass because blue is his favorite color.

The center of the piece showcased a bold red tile - illustrating him as the head of his household; blue for his mother, as an overseer like the clouds; and dark gray for his son, who has experienced a rough year but remains bold.

“Right now I just try to take one day at a time and take the good with the bad,” said Flanigan.



Related Services

Featured Providers

Jennifer E. Schwartz, MD

Bone Marrow Transplant

View More Providers