A Conversation With Heather Abrams

Posted on 17 July 2008

A cancer survivor and wildlife/nature educator, Abrams inspired her parents to raise money for and provide education on Dr. Mitchell Cairo of Columbia University Medical Center’s Division of Pediatric Blood & Marrow Transplantation — the doctor their daughter believes saved her life. A fundraiser “Dreaming for Discovery and Cure benefit” will be held this Saturday, July 19 in Water Mill.

You were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1999 Can you tell us a little about your experience?

Basically the way I found out was when I was 15, I was in Social Studies class and I felt my neck and it was swollen. It felt like there were three eggs in my neck. So I went to our school nurse in New Jersey and she sent me to the doctor and the doctor sent me to a radiologist to have an X-ray from [her neck to her chest]. It didn’t show anything because as we found out it was all in my lymph nodes. Eventually they sent me for an MRI and that was when they found the tumor. I don’t remember how big it was. It was right in my mediastinum. That was March 1999. I had chemo in May or June and I had radiation for a month. My hair did not all fall out, which was weird, but it became really, really thin. I have gone through three different times of losing it. I remember in chemo, one week I would be completely exhausted and the next week completely nauseous, but at the same time I was on steroids so I was starving. So, that was bad.

You had a reoccurrence of cancer after you entered your first remission. When did that happen?

I was technically in remission around August of 1999. I went back to school for my sophomore year. In September, my doctor at St. Barnabas [Hospital] said she wanted to do tests in about a year, and I said I would be more comfortable if we did it in six months. And so we did in six months, and didn’t you know it, I was sick again.

My hair had grown out about [six inches] long by then, and it was thicker, but a little bit lighter. I used to have darker hair.

The deal was, the second time around they wanted to do as much as possible to make sure that it did not come back ever again — the protocol being chemo, stem cell transplant, [umbilical] cord blood transplant, which could not be done at St. Barnabas, which is why I went to Columbia.

So, that is where you met Dr. Cairo?

Yes. So I had three rounds of highly toxic, crazy chemo, emergencies in between like crazy infections, no platelets. Each chemo was a week in the hospital and each emergency was a week. My stem cell transplant was from my own stem cells, so that was on my 17th birthday when I should have been getting my license. But I was already in remission my then — the stem cell transplant and the cord blood transplant were just a boost. I had no hair, eyebrows — nothing. This was all in 2000.

What are your thoughts on the importance of stem cell transplants and cord blood as it relates to people facing cancer? Did it save your life?

Yes. The only thing they are worried about is secondary leukemia — I just had a bone marrow procedure last week to check my bone marrow. And I get breast MRIs every year and an ultrasound of my breastplate every six months.

Apparently if you take my DNA, it’s me — if you take my blood, there is the baby’s blood [from the umbilical cord blood transplant]. So, I am chimera, which means I am a fusion of two organisms. My hair started growing back after the radiation — it was really blond — it was like brand new hair. My hair has been growing now since August of 2001.

So are you afraid to cut your hair now?

When I cut it, it’s just a trim — I really try not to cut it.

What was it that brought your parents, stepmother Beverly Deak and father Mark Abrams, to start the Dream, Discover, Cure foundation?

My doctor had the Pediatric Cancer Foundation … he had me speak at fundraisers and events, because I am his strong patient. I am the second person at Columbia Presbyterian to go through a cord blood transplant and live. Also, I have no scar tissue. I never rejected the blood, I never rejected anything. So my dad and I got into this and began raising money for [Dr. Cairo].

What does the foundation aim to accomplish?

It’s purely to raise money for Dr. Cairo, because he is a genius in this field. He is trying to find ways to understand how these cancers happen in order to prevent it. It’s obviously to help other people in the end, but my dad does this in honor of me.

What drew you to study animal science and geography at the University of Vermont?

Well, ever since I was little I wanted to do stuff like marine science, and of course when I got sick I thought I would be a doctor, but that did go out the window. I’ve always liked it. It makes me happy and I have been through a lot — I want to do something meaningful. I started in geography and added the animal science. I have worked with all kinds of animals — cats, cows — I interned working with dolphins and sea lions in Florida, and worked at a lake preserve like this before I came to [the South Fork Natural History Museum]. I love turtles — I have a half blind turtle in my office, Biddy Boxer [a box turtle] who I just love. I am just passionate about it and I want to do what I love because life is short and I know that for a fact.

What is your work at the South Fork Natural History Museum like?

I am a nature educator, which means I am around to help answer questions and give insight as people tour our facilities. We have a wonderful touch tank downstairs, with sea stars and crabs that people love, and we care for a number of handicapped animals and animals in need with the hope of being able to release them into their natural habitat.

The fundraiser “Dreaming for Discovery and Cure benefit” will be held this Saturday, July 19 at the home of Janet Whalen and Robert W. Postma in Water Mill. For more information, call 725-0009.

Above: Heather Abrams with Bitty Boxer, one of her favorite animals at the South Fork Natural History Museum. (k menu photo)

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