Tears gushed as Heather Parman tried to contain her joy. She sat crying, surrounded by her UTC volleyball teammates on a bus outside Kennesaw State University in early September. She was elated, ecstatic. There was no holding back.
One hundred miles north, at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Parman’s mother, Judy, was in a similar state. Sitting by her husband, Eddie, in the same building where they had experienced one of the scariest nights of their lives two weeks earlier, Judy wept freely.
Heather’s excitement stemmed from a text message from her father. The exact phrasing or word choice is unimportant. The 21-year-old learned there had been a major step toward recovery for Eddie.
In a process that the entire family expected to take months, Eddie was notified just weeks after joining the donor registry that there was a match for his much-needed bone marrow transplant.
“The nurse said that just doesn't happen,” Judy Parman said. “(The nurse) was crying, I was crying.”
Four months earlier, Eddie started experiencing fatigue after routine exercise. The 56-year-old is a walker and runner, but those activities were becoming slightly more difficult.
A check-up with the family doctor raised flags. A trip to Chattanooga Oncology and Hematology Associates (COHA) followed.
Sitting in a waiting room, Eddie naively looked around the oncology office.
“I didn't know why I was there,” Eddie Parman said. “Nobody had said the word cancer. I finally asked (Judy), ‘What am I doing here?’”
The diagnosis was Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a type of bone marrow cancer that can lead to acute leukemia. Chemotherapy treatments were scheduled quickly.
During this process, Heather was kept on a need-to-know basis. She has three older siblings, the youngest of which is 32, and her parents tried to protect the youngest child. Heather was getting settled into her junior year at Chattanooga and volleyball practices were just underway.
“She’s our baby, that’s for sure,” Eddie said.
Oftentimes, though, information fell through the family tree. Heather would hear one thing from her mother, then ask older sister, Rebecca — a nurse — for a better explanation. It would usually lead to hours of independent research. Heather first learned of the potential MDS has of progressing to leukemia via a Google search.
“I didn’t take it very well,” Heather said. “I told (my parents) what I had found so I wanted the cold hard facts from them. It was scary, going into volleyball season and to school and not being able to be around my dad.”
Circumstances quickly worsened. Doctors are still uncertain if trouble was initiated by the MDS or unrelated causes, but an adrenal hemorrhage woke Eddie at 4 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20. He had undergone his fifth consecutive day of chemotherapy Friday, but had felt mostly fine throughout the week.
Saturday morning, though, the hemorrhage sent his hormone production to zero and caused immense pain. Judy rushed her husband to the hospital, where he remained unconscious until Tuesday. At that point Eddie still had a fever over 100. He was transferred from oncology to the cardiac floor. The hospital stay lasted a month. Death lingered at his side.
Two weeks after his release, Eddie talked with his wife and youngest daughter after a Chattanooga volleyball game. They recounted stories from the traumatic time. Heather heard some of the morbid details for the first time.
Judy’s updates (she frequently posted Eddie’s status on Facebook) had disguised some of the grim reality with an optimistic demeanor.
“I tried to keep it upbeat because I knew (Heather) was reading it,” Judy said. “I would write that we met Mr. Cooling Blanket last night. I didn’t say it was because he had a 104 temperature and they were trying to get it down.”
Upon first visiting her father, Heather barely recognized the man in front of her. His hair was disheveled and unkempt. A fragile, pale face made him appear elderly and ailing.
The man Heather had always looked up to was feeble and weak.
The hospital trips became the focus of Heather’s days from Aug. 20 to Sept. 16. During class or volleyball, her thoughts wandered to her father’s bedside. At first she made trips alone, but slowly began asking teammates to come with her.
“I went with her a couple of times (to the hospital),” junior Paula Passmore said. “All you can say is everything happens for a reason and everything’s going to be alright.”
Eddie Parman has only vague memories of his first two weeks in the hospital after the hemorrhage. Judy kept a journal during that time which Eddie has since gone back and read. He learned how many people it took to help him shower, how often nurses caught a glimpse of his bare backside getting in and out of bed.
Fuzzy images paint the picture of his 33rd wedding anniversary. Eddie and Judy shared it on Aug. 23. There was no celebration, except for the volleyball team stopping by with a few smiling faces. A student-athlete dinner had been scheduled that evening, but at practice, senior captain Ellie Kuhn approached head coach Travis Filar. She asked if the team could be a little late — their teammate needed support.
“I was blown away,” Filar said of the request. “You feel like you’re doing something and you’re impacting something because we talk about family, but when kids make decisions to do that, it’s really special. That was probably the neatest thing through this situation that I’ve seen.”
The team enveloped Eddie’s bed with balloons and flowers.
In previous years, the Parmans hosted a cookout at their Ooltewah home for the entire team. This year, glaring white hospital walls staged introductions between the Parmans and new team members.
“A lot of the nurses commented on them being there,” Judy said. “I think they were impressed by that.”
Over time, Eddie’s condition improved. As his blood counts rose, patience waned. He wanted normalcy. The nurses reluctantly let him watch live video of Heather's games on the internet.
“My heart rate went from 60 to 112,” he said.
Eddie begged nurses to go to home games.
“I’ll wear a mask,” he insisted. “It’s just right around the corner.”
Eddie Parsons wanted his life back. Work. Volleyball. Outdoor activities. Everything. The need for antibiotics through an IV three times a day made that difficult.
An excess of facial hair was another of Eddie's primary concerns — risk of infection prevented him from shaving. He had never let his beard grow to more than a stubble. Doctors were told his first destination after leaving the hospital would not be home, but to the barber.
Clean-shaven, Eddie attended his first UTC volleyball game of 2011 on Sept. 28. The Mocs lost to Mercer in three sets, but neither Eddie nor Heather will likely remember the score. Heather will cherish hearing a voice echo from the stands as she went back to serve.
“Take your time, Heather!” Eddie said. “One at a time.”
The game marked a milestone in Eddie’s battle with bone marrow cancer. Along with hearing that a donor had been found, seeing his youngest daughter play volleyball ranks as one of the highlights of the last five months.
Those moments have been rallying points for the family. Regardless of difficulties, Eddie and Judy have refused to be anything but positive and methodical in their fight.
“Day by day” has become a family motto.
Eddie is now back at work — he is a district manager for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He is living at home and trying to maintain a normal routine even with week-long chemotherapy treatments once a month.
The Parmans will visit Vanderbilt Medical Center on Dec. 20. They hope to set a date for their return to the transplant center on the university’s campus early in 2012.
A week of chemotherapy will precede the operation. A 100-day period in which Eddie must remain in Nashville will follow. There will be frequent tests. Recovery treatments will grow tedious. Complications and side-effects following the procedure are much more dangerous than the time in the operating room.
Dr. Carolyn Thompson, the wife of UTC Chancellor Roger Brown, is currently living in a Nashville apartment. She had a mini-stem cell transplant for a slightly different form of bone marrow cancer. The anticipation of a return to Chattanooga is mounting. Her 100 days of captivity have declined to less than 20.
“My primary response has been fatigue,” Thompson said. “Some days I feel like I cannot put one foot in front of the other. The loss of energy is profound.”
Thompson misses some of her favorite hobbies, like gardening, and has had to be careful around her dog. The procedure diminishes a patient’s immune system. Hand sanitizer is a centerpiece of every table in her Nashville apartment.
Thompson’s long, difficult process began nearly a year ago. The original diagnosis side-swiped her. She is quick to share, though, that there have been positives.There has been growth in her marriage of 13 years to Brown. She describes his cooking skills as “improving.” Some of the energy and enthusiasm that made Thompson so recognizable across the UTC campus has been torn away, but she says the process has enhanced her outlook on life.
“You can say, ‘Well, what do I want to do from here?” Thompson said. “I might want to pick up a new hobby or read a new genre. ... You have to be able to look ahead and say things will get better. You have to have some hope.”
When facing an invisible enemy, hope is often all that endures. As much as they can, the Parmans try to avoid horror stories.
Whether it is nearby patients in the hospital or brief talks with acquaintances on short errands around town, many have tales of failed transplants.
Dr. Marq Anz, the Parman’s primary physician at Chattanooga Oncology and Hematology Associates, says there are numerous potential complications to a bone marrow transplant.
“It’s not by any means to be taken lightly,” Anz said. “There is the potential for infections, failed engraftment of the donor cells, and problems where the transplant itself can attack your body."
Eddie and Judy seem to not let it affect them. They just repeat their favorite phrase, “Day by day.”
Heather is doing the same at UTC. She is on a personal crusade to turn the campus into a center for cancer awareness.
At the beginning of the volleyball season, representatives from Blood Assurance spoke with the team about the effects of Eddie’s disease and passed out kits for the team to join the donor registry.
"There is a misconception among the general public that donating bone marrow stem cells is an uncomfortable process," Anz said. "While it can be time consuming and may require a bone marrow biopsy, the procedure is typically minimally invasive and similar to donating blood."
Finding a donor has given the Parman a second lease. The transplant is potentially curative.
It was only one month ago that Eddie looked worn and battered. His weary eyes could only stare blankly from underneath hospital sheets.
Back in Maclellan gym at UTC, Eddie smirks at the thought. “Day by day” is on the tip of his tongue. His face has regained color. Not a hint of stubble persists below his chin. Eddie Parman looks healthy and sure.
Instead of his new found credo, Eddie issues a slightly more confident remark.
“They’re messing with perfection here.”