VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network
Story of Hope: One Veterans' Conquest over Cancer
It was a slight tooth ache that brought Marine Corps Veteran Joe Garza to the Fort Worth VA Outpatient Clinic for a quick check up. His gums and tonsils were swollen, and over-the-counter medicine did not help. His doctor thought he may have an infection and decided to do some blood work as a precaution. Joe remembers his doctor saying he needed to go to Dallas VA Medical Center immediately. He could not imagine why he had to go to Dallas for a simple infection. Several hours and multiple lab tests later, the ER doctor determined the cause of Joe's mouth pain and swelling - leukemia. He remembers that moment two years ago like it was yesterday. "My thinking stopped after that. I didn't hear anymore after he told me I had cancer," Joe said.
It was an aggressive type of blood cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia (AML). With only a 20% chance of survival, he needed a bone marrow transplant but first, his cancer had to be in remission. Joe started aggressive rounds of chemotherapy that made him so sick that he just wanted to give up.
Garza tears up as he recalls what his doctor told him as he lay weak, tired, and despondent in a VA hospital bed. "I can’t create miracles, but I can give you hope" was just what Joe needed to hear to start fighting for his life. He praises the doctors and nurses at Dallas VA who helped him along this difficult journey. Joe says, "I was so rude to the doctors and nurses, but they were always so kind to me. They would give me encouragement and let me know that other people survived it." Joe flew to Nashville, Tennessee and started treatment.It took numerous rounds of chemotherapy, but finally, Joe was eligible for a bone marrow transplant.
First hurdle cleared, the next challenge was to find a suitable donor. Joe was devastated twice when two possible donors were not cleared for transplant due to possible medical complications after surgery. Joe didn't want to hear any more bad news. He was about to give up again and was ready to talk to his family and physicians about end-of-life care. It was then that Joe's son decided to test to see if he was a possible match for a transplant. Joe was prepared for failure but got the news he had been waiting 18 months to hear. His son was a perfect match and healthy enough to do the transplant. The transplant was a success and in November 2014 Joe was finally able to go home to his family, just in time for Thanksgiving.
The man who was given less than 6 months to live in 2013 is currently in remission. In February 2015, Joe was honored to lead the Pledge of Allegiance during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Dallas VA Medical Center for the Nursing Unit where he spent so much time. He cannot thank the VA staff for all of their care, support, and encouragement and hopes to soon be able to volunteer and be an encouragement to other cancer patients at the VA.
At VA North Texas, our staff and volunteers are changing lives…one Veteran at a time. We would like to hear your success story! Contact Rhea at 214-857-1155 or email NTXPublicAffairs@va.gov