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Starting over as a survivor

Vladimir Spector (Photo: Scott Streble)

Vladimir Spector celebrates two birthdays: the date he was born 21 years ago, and the date—March 24, 2005—he received a stem cell transplant at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

“On your transplant day, you’re literally starting over,” Spector says. “It feels like everything on you dies, even your fingernails; you’re pretty much a brand-new baby.”

Now a marketing major at Winona State University (WSU), Spector was in eighth grade when what he thought was a winter cold continued to worsen. On Christmas Eve, he and his family received the diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Spector spent Christmas Day 2003 in the hospital undergoing testing. His treatment, including radiation and five rounds of chemotherapy, ended in summer 2004.

But six months later, doctors found a spot on Spector’s spleen. Backed by the family, his doctors decided to proceed with high-dose chemotherapy followed by an autologous stem cell transplant, using cells from Spector’s own bone marrow rather than from a donor.

“They called me ‘the miracle child,’” Spector says of his recovery. He gives his care team much of the credit and believes that if his family hadn’t moved to Minnesota from Ukraine when he was 6, he probably wouldn’t be alive today. “They would always come with social workers, counselors, people to help with insurance, people seeing if we needed help with anything. We never were wondering, ‘Oh, what do we do about this?’ ”

Thanks to his close-knit family and his medical care, Spector survived both cancer and adolescence, developing a depth of perspective that’s rare in someone so young. He also appreciates things most young adults take for granted, such as the taste of food.

“When I was on chemo, my taste buds died, and the only thing I could taste was buffalo wings,” he recalls. “Buffalo wings got me through.”

In remission since 10th grade, Spector continues to see Daniel Mulrooney, M.D., at the Long-Term Follow-Up Clinic in the University’s Masonic Cancer Clinic. Mulrooney addresses the implications of Spector’s treatment for his future health. Each year he’s in remission, his chances of a recurrence diminish, but he faces an ongoing risk of complications related to treatment.

“We can’t change the therapy he had,” Mulrooney says. Rather, the follow-up visits help to ensure that Spector is living a healthy lifestyle and getting appropriate and vigilant care.

Spector carries a 3.75 grade-point average, and he’s looking forward to an internship in the WSU sports marketing department this spring. Spector also plays intramural basketball at WSU. “I work out a lot; that’s my stress release,” he says.

“He’s a terribly impressive young man, and a pleasure to take care of,” Mulrooney says. “This is the kind of outcome we’d like to see for any child. He’s going to be very successful in life.”

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