From OHC, Specialists in the Treatment of Adult Cancers and Blood Disorders
January 28, 2022
At age 71, James “Jim” Rueger, a retired attorney, had never been sick a day in his life. While enjoying one of his frequent visits to Anna Maria Island, Florida, he experienced shortness of breath and was bruising and bleeding excessively from a cut. Upon returning to Cincinnati, he contacted his doctor who scheduled a stress test, which Jim failed. A blood test revealed an extremely low hemoglobin level and Jim was sent to the emergency room for a bone marrow biopsy. He was diagnosed with a myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). MDS occurs when blood-forming cells in bone marrow become abnormal. Jim’s doctor, Saulius Girnius, MD, told him that a stem cell transplant could offer a cure and referred him to leading cellular therapy expert, OHC’s James H. Essell, MD.
“I felt comfortable with Dr. Essell from the get-go,” said Jim. “I had confidence in him as he saved the life of my friend who had leukemia and needed a transplant.”
Dr. Essell, a medical oncologist, hematologist, and blood and marrow transplant specialist, recommended that Jim have an allogeneic stem cell transplant as he would probably only have two-to-three years of life without it. An allogeneic stem cell, or bone marrow, transplant is a procedure in which a patient receives healthy stem cells from a donor to replace those that are damaged. “It’s a major procedure that some doctors feel older patients are unable to tolerate as a result of their frailty,” said Dr. Essell. “We have to consider several factors, including the patient’s overall health and disease progression, before making the recommendation.”
“I had so much to live for—my wife, four daughters, and eight grandchildren,” said Jim. “We had a family meeting and decided to move forward with the transplant.”
Dr. Essell secured Jim’s donor stem cells through Be The Match, an organization that helps patients with life-threatening diseases find fully matched bone marrow donors. To prepare his body for the transplant, Jim underwent chemotherapy to destroy diseased cells in his bloodstream and blood-forming cells in his bone marrow. Following the transplant on August 11, 2020, at The Jewish Hospital-Mercy Health Cincinnati Cancer and Cellular Therapy Center, Jim remained in the hospital for 36 days. “We closely monitor patients in the hospital following a transplant as their immune systems are extremely weakened and we want to ensure that the donated cells are growing and making new blood cells,” said Dr. Essell.
“Those days following the transplant were scary,” said Jim. “Especially during COVID.” It typically takes two years for a transplant patient’s full immunity to return. Jim has been hospitalized many times for infections like pneumonia. He was also diagnosed with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in his intestines, which is a complication that can occur after transplants if donated stem cells view the recipient’s body as foreign and attack it. “It was hard for me to get nutrition and stay hydrated,” said Jim. “My leg muscles atrophied and I needed physical therapy.”
Surrounded by family and a dedicated OHC care team, Jim found his strength to heal. The entire family wears bracelets that read: Hope. Courage. Faith. “I couldn’t have done it without my wife, Jeanne,” said Jim. “She was always there for me. I don’t know how many times Dr. Essell saved my life. Every day I was ‘in it,’ I felt more determined to get through it. Dr. Essell said, ‘One day the clouds will disappear and you’ll see the sun.’”
Jim has been seeing a lot of sun these days. A resident of Green Township, Ohio, he spends his winters on Anna Maria Island where he and Jeanne walk the beach every day and he plays a lot of golf. Inspired by their father’s journey, Jim’s daughters raised $6,700 for Be The Match through a walk/run event. Two of his daughters, Jodie and Jamie, volunteer for the organization as an ambassador and courier, respectively.
Jim will have regular follow-up visits with Dr. Essell for the rest of his life, but he’s comfortable being a fixture around his OHC ‘family.’ “The whole team, from top to bottom, is life savers,” said Jim. “They did a wonderful job and prepared me for what was to come, advising that I try to find one good thing in every day.” Jim, whose new mantra is ‘In Essell We Trust,’ hopes to volunteer at OHC once COVID passes so that he can share his experience with others.
OHC’s specialists are the first – and most experienced – cellular therapy and blood and marrow transplant experts in the region. Since 1988, OHC has directed over 2,500 transplants. In 2018, OHC was the first adult cancer practice in the region to offer the innovative CAR T-cell therapy and has completed over 70 infusions to date. For more information on OHC’s cellular therapy team or to request a second opinion, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.
Top picture, Jim Rueger’s Family:
Back row, left to right: Ryan Johnson(son-in-law), Nathan Vogelpohl (grandson), Tyler Vogelpohl (grandson), Jordan Chard (Tyler’s fiancée), Eric Vogelpohl (son-in-law), Kellie Vogelpohl (daughter), Emily Vogelpohl (granddaughter), Abbey Vogelpohl (granddaughter), Jamie Rueger (daughter), Andrew Sonnek (son-in-law)
Front row, left to right: Arden Johnson (granddaughter), Jodie Johnson (daughter), Jim Rueger, Jackson Sonnek (grandson), Jeanne Rueger (wife), Sylvan Johnson (granddaughter), Julie Sonnek (daughter), Hudson Sonnek (grandson)