Many words can describe Dr. Doug Ayers — conservationist, environmentalist, educator, volunteer, veterinarian.
Recently, the 54-year-old Noxen native added “patient” to that list. Ayers finds himself in unfamiliar territory as he switches gears from a care provider to a care recipient as he undergoes treatments for Acute Myelogenous Leukemia.
“I have spent my life trying to be the responsible one who had a goal of saving the world and everyone in it,” he said. ” I have almost never been waited upon or have been the receiver of care.”
His first efforts to promote conservation through land management strategies began in 1993 when he was part of a small group of environmentally-minded citizens who established North Branch Land Trust.
Then, to care for the regions’ furry critters, Ayers established the Plains Animal Hospital in 1995 and later the Northeast Veterinary Referral Hospital in Plains Township.
The doctor was in the process of developing The Lands at Hillside Farms to educate the public on sustainable living choices when the disease started to show subtle symptoms.
In 2004, routine blood work revealed the veterinarian’s white blood count was very low.
“I had spent my life working very hard and felt that I was probably just run down,” he said. “My life was very busy at the time, and I felt great, so I did nothing to pursue the low WBC (white blood count).”
Ayers revisited the health issue in 2009, once he built up his veterinary practices and got The Lands at Hillside Farms fully operating.
“I had more blood work done that revealed anemia along with the low WBC,” he said. “I saw a local oncologist for a bone marrow biopsy.”
The test showed he had Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a form of cancer.
Ayers challenged the diagnosis and sought out other medical professionals. Their tests agreed with the initial diagnosis, while others “suggested an autoimmune syndrome,” he said.
“I had my blood counts monitored frequently at my local oncologist, and it always seemed that I should be ill given my (WBC) counts and marrow appearance,” Ayers said. “But I was thriving while working the typical 80-plus hours a week which was normal for me.”
But then his symptoms worsened. In the fall of 2014, he felt light-headed.
In March 2015, he returned to a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, who conducted another bone marrow biopsy. This time, the test showed the disease grew and “transformed into a type of rare leukemia called Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia (CMML),” he said.
“I was shocked and scared as my health had always been very good and my ancestors tend to live into their 80s and 90s with ease,” Ayers said. “I insisted that my immune system had always been overactive, and it must be the culprit here. Accepting the diagnosis was hard due to my training in research and the difficulty throughout the prior 12 years in getting consensus among the numerous institutions and physicians.”
By Christmas 2015, Ayers became more tired and developed a rash on his chest, arms and head. He stopped working.
“My veterinary practices were staffed well and very well managed,” he said. “The Lands at Hillside Farms was also well run by both a great staff and nonprofit board.”
Quest for success
Ayers tried an experimental drug to treat his cancer, but it had no effect.
The rash spread to his face and his white blood counts dropped to dangerous levels, he said.
“Off to Johns Hopkins I went,” he said. “Another bone marrow biopsy revealed that MDS that evolved into CMML had now evolved further into Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. I was in big trouble.”
Ayers started chemotherapy.
“I laid in a hospital bed for five weeks during therapy,” he said. “The cancer responded great (to chemotherapy), and I entered full remission which shocked the physicians.”
But the only real successful treatment would be a stem cell transplant, he said.
Stem cell transplant, also known as a bone marrow transplant, requires a donor who matches the proteins in the recipient’s white blood cells and tissue. The best chances to find a successful match is from family members, Ayers said.
“I have no children,” Ayers said. “My sisters could have worked as matches but they are both over 60 years old, and success is greater with younger donors.”
Ayers discovered an organization called Be The Match that has millions of people in the U.S. as registered bone marrow donors.
“I matched 900 people and never was I so shocked,” he said. “It is because I come from northern European ancestry that led to so many matches. Many people who need matches have none.”
Bone marrow donors endure many tests and injections and sacrifice a lot of time to have their blood filtered for stem cells to help a stranger, he said.
“These people are awesome as they get nothing in return for their effort but the satisfaction of knowing they helped someone else,” he said. “True heroes!”
On June 29, Ayers received a stem cell transfer from an anonymous donor.
The transplant process was not easy. Ayers developed an infection in his blood 10 days after the transfer.
“My white blood count declined to zero from the chemo,” he said. “I developed severe stomach and intestinal issues that I still am not over due to some of the anti-rejection meds I am taking. Never have I been so nauseated for so long.”
The disease and physically-challenging treatments made Ayers think about his mortality.
“I am a Christian with huge faith but never had (faced) the threat of death,” he said. “At 54, I just felt unprepared for any of this. It has become obvious that I have different mindsets within the same head. The little boy in me doesn’t want to leave what I know here. The army general part of my personality, who has led me from a life as a timid farm boy in Noxen to numerous Ivy League universities, has full faith in God and no fear whatsoever and knows I will survive this. It is often a tug of war between us.”
His cancer has entered into remission, but being cooped up in an apartment in Maryland has him feeling homesick.
“I miss home,” he said. “I miss my dog and various other critters.”
He hopes to return to the Wyoming Valley in September.
“I don’t like that I will need to watch over my shoulder to see if the cancer returns one day,” Ayers said. “There are no guarantees and my type of disease is one of the toughest in the leukemia category to cure.”
Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews.