Pam Bechtel’s heart beats for Bowling Green. She’s hoping for a little love in return.
The retired Bowling Green State University professor needs a stem cell transplant to cure MDS (myleodysplastic syndrome), a type of blood cancer. She likely got the blood cancer from treatment related to her stage III breast cancer battle in spring 2019.
The earliest the stem cell transplant could take place is April, but Bechtel must first find a donor.
“I’m not a reacher-outer. I was raised to be strong, to work through it, to just take care of it,” she said. “I’m pretty damn independent.”
With the encouragement from friends and family, she did decide to reach out to the community and ask for blood donors.
“I’m going to fight as hard as I can. There’s some things out of my control now. Finding a donor is out of my control. But I can go through these shots. I can exercise. I can keep a positive attitude. I can reach out to people.”
Her cancer journey started in spring 2019 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Me, being the educator that I am, waiting until the end of the semester, exam’s on Wednesday and my surgery was on Thursday,” she said.
She had 23 lymph nodes removed.
“Seven were malignant and the magic number was four,” Bechtel said, explaining why she had to have additional treatment, including 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
That summer, she had to make an emergency room visit when her heart started fluttering. Possible nodules on her liver and thyroid gland were found.
On July 8, 2019, the right lobe of her thyroid gland was removed. On Aug. 5, five-days-a-week radiation started. By Sept. 16, she had concluded treatments.
“I was on the mend.”
Soon after, Bechtel was diagnosed with lymphedema, which is swelling in the arms or legs, caused by the removal of, or damage to, lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment.
“Honestly the only thing that ever really set me off into tears was when I got the diagnosis … and I would have to wear a compression sleeve for the rest of my life.”
It wasn’t vanity, Bechtel said of the sleeve, which looks like a big bandage, wrapping from wrist to shoulder.
“I’m always someone who likes to be inconspicuous. I like to blend in,” she said.
Still, she adjusted and went on with life, until this past spring. Bechtel was doing some yard work when her left arm started to swell. Her lymphedema had progressed.
She was put in a reduction sleeve, which looks like a Velcro cast.
“I was in tears wearing this, and I called one of my friends,” Bechtel said. “She said, ‘why don’t you just embrace it?’”
Attitude improved, she uncapped a bright Sharpie marker and wrote “lymphedema” on the sleeve as large as she could.
It was the beginning of Bechtel’s bringing awareness to the condition, which would worsen.
An Oct. 5 appointment showed her blood count was down. She had to start weekly blood tests.
In November, Bechtel had a bone marrow biopsy.
“I kind of knew I was in trouble.”
The diagnosis of blood cancer was made Dec. 4. If untreated, MDS will develop into AcuteMyelogenous Leukemia, a very aggressive form of leukemia.
Bechtel is about to begin her second round of chemotherapy shots. To cure it, she needs a stem cell transplant.
Later in December, she and her brother, Jim, met with the transplant team at the James Cancer Center.
“My siblings were tested right after Christmas,” she said. “My siblings came out to be 50% (match), which they could use in an emergency.”
Soon after that, she received a journal from bethematch.org, which helps people with blood cancers.
“That’s when it hit me. This is serious,” Bechtel said. “This is really going to be something that happens.”
When she receives the transplant, Bechtel will require a 30-day hospital stay and must remain in isolation, close to the Columbus hospital for 100 days.
Her golf league and another group of friends rallied, sending gift baskets, cards and starting a gofundme page called Pam’s Platoon.
But Bechtel said she’d prefer blood donors over money.
“I don’t want to sit back and just wait for people. If I can get a few people from around the area to donate, who knows? If they’re not a match for me, maybe they’ll be a match for someone else.”
The process is not painful, she said. It’s a swab in the inside of the cheek.
The stem cell transplant is like the one that ABC-TV’s Robin Roberts had in 2012, and Bechtel is currently reading her book, “Everybody’s Got Something.”
She keeps busy by tutoring a first grader, exercising and spending time with her Puggle and cat, Ziggy. Before coronavirus, she volunteered for the Black Swamp Arts Festival, Firefly Nights and Habitat for Humanity, and taught for the American Red Cross.
Overall, Bechtel said she feels well, just tired. She plans on having the transplant and hopes her odds improve to get the best match possible.
“The worst case is we would use my siblings at 50%. We’re hoping for higher,” she said. “They do think there’s a probability of getting a closer match.
“Everybody’s very positive. They think I’m a good candidate.”
She graduated from BGSU in 1978 as a health and physical education major. She started
at Oak Harbor schools that year and went on to coach volleyball there. In fall 1997, she took a position at the University of Toledo.
Bechtel earned her master’s from BGSU in 1981 and started her Ph.D. program at Ohio State University in 1998 at the age of 42. She was hired in 2005 for her “dream job,” developing new health and physical education teachers at BGSU. She retired in 2015, but has worked part time.
As she’s battled cancer, Bechtel has heard from former students and colleagues.
“It makes you realize you have touched some lives,” she said.
“I’ve had a good life and if I’m not meant to survive it, OK, but I’m going to give it the best shot I can,” Bechtel said. “I’m making the best of a bad situation. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”