She was 25 weeks pregnant and felt like she had the flu. It was early July 2015 and she made her way to her obstetrician’s office because the antibiotics she’d taken over the Fourth of July holiday hadn’t made her feel better. A couple hours later Elizabeth Carswell was in the hospital being diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. She was 33 years old.
“Obviously, the scariest part was the first two months when I was still pregnant,” says Carswell, known as Liz to her friends. She was immediately transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and began chemotherapy. “It was a very tough decision to be treated, but I wanted to meet my baby.”
The first two rounds of chemo were unsuccessful and her doctors wanted her to undergo a more aggressive treatment. That meant it was time to deliver the baby. Liz was 32 weeks along and the surgery was extremely risky. Her blood counts and platelets were considered too low for surgery, but despite it all, baby Hudson was born weighing in at 4 pounds. Liz continued her treatment in the hospital while Hudson was admitted to the NICU for five weeks.
When Hudson was released from the hospital, Liz was not. Her boyfriend, Hudson’s father, Frankie Lightfoot had to return home to work, so Liz’s father and her sister moved to Miami, rented an apartment near the hospital and cared for the baby. Liz was never alone. Her father and sister alternated caring for the baby and spending the night in the hospital with her. Her friends showered her with gifts for the baby and travelled to her bedside to decorate her hospital room. Meanwhile, her doctors were trying to ready Liz for a bone marrow transplant, but could never get her levels where they needed to be and eventually her Jackson Memorial team told her it was time to go home and spend whatever time she had left with her baby.
That’s when a friend connected Liz with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society which led her to a clinical trial at the City of Hope Cancer Research Hospital in Duarte, California under the care of Stephen J. Forman, M.D., F.A.C.P. She went the next day. The trial involved very aggressive full-body radiation and a stem cell transplant. Her brother, a perfect 10 match, was her donor.
The transplant put her into remission. It was November 2015. Then, in August of 2016, she found some lumps in her breast. The leukemia had returned in mass form. More radiation and seven more rounds of chemo later she is technically in remission. But, due to a gene mutation that makes her highly likely to relapse, Liz continues with regular rounds of chemo for maintenance.
“My doctor expects recurrence,” she says. That’s why she will undergo another stem cell transplant within the next couple months. This time, from an unrelated donor so that a new immune system can be introduced. She will spend another six weeks in the hospital, but she believes this is what she has to do. “I know it’s needed,” she said. “I trust it’s needed. I trust my doctor. He’s pretty amazing.”
Liz is undaunted by what lies ahead. “There are lots of ups and downs, but a positive attitude is a must if you’re going to survive,” she says. Though she credits Hudson, now two, as her main motivation. Early on she felt it was Hudson growing inside her who was keeping her alive and now being his mother keeps her going. “I’m not scared to go through it again,” she says of her upcoming transplant. “I’m excited to do it again. I’ll do anything that will give me a chance to watch Hudson grow up.”
Liz has kept a record of her journey on her Facebook page, Prayers for Elizabeth. She continues to keep her page updated and in addition to helping her, she hopes that sharing her story can help others. You can keep up with Liz here.
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.