Fever. Then stomach ache. Then sudden weight loss. It was enough to convince her mother, Jessica Bleichner, to take her daughter in for a doctor’s appointment. After a series of rigorous tests, it was revealed that Azalea, then 12, was not allergic to anything she ate. No, the cause of her conditions was much more serious and manifested in the form of chronic myeloid leukemia.
This was in late March 2020, a time most people will associate with the arrival of COVID-19 to the U.S. shores and state-imposed health mandates. While the world was being turned upside down, the family in the Bleichner house was now battling a cancer that – coupled with the side effects of the treatment – threatened to wipe out their daughter’s immune system in the worst global pandemic close to a century.
“You act a lot,” Jessica said. “We try to be as cool as possible because at those times it doesn’t help to panic and panic. I really tried to keep the atmosphere in the room as peaceful as possible and not add to that stress. … (Azaelea) was scared. We didn’t know what stage it was in, whether it was life-threatening or not, and she’s old enough to understand that. “
The Bleichner family, from Pequot Lakes, from left to right: Ambrosia, Azaelea, Jesse, Lily, Jessica and Kaenen on April 17, 2020. Photo submitted
The outside world, on the other hand, did not help matters. Like many workers during the pandemic, Jessica was fired from her job as an assistant brewer at Roundhouse Brewery and server at Bar Harbor Supper Club, while her husband, Jesse – a technician at Holden Electric Co. and the family holder’s sole health care policy – faced with the prospect of needing extended leave to provide for his family.
Their other children – older sisters Lily, 16, and Ambrosia, 15, as well as younger brother Keenen, 11 – suddenly found themselves in a household where their sister and parents couldn’t be with them for long. Schools closed and extracurricular activities were suspended. Suddenly, the children had to stay locked up for days on end, alone in their home in Pequot Lakes.
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For the Bleichners, a healthy family of outgoing nature lovers who didn’t have a single member of any kind of medication before last year, 2020 was a splash of cold water to the face in more ways than one.
But that all paled in comparison to the Azaelea saga. In all fairness, Jessica said, the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly faded into the background when she was confronted with cancer. COVID-19 was mostly an intrusive presence, she said, intruding every step of the treatment process and seemingly complicating every aspect of their time at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where Azaelea was being treated.
“I was just hyper-focused on the task at hand, so the pandemic became kind of secondary,” Jessica said. ‘I can’t think of any thing that it didn’t affect. I felt bad because we had our children alone at home. They had a lot of responsibility to just be at home and deal with a pandemic without their mother or father being there with them consistently. We couldn’t really have people in the house. They really had to go a step further. “
Leukemia is a cancer that attacks the individual’s blood cells and bone marrow and this means that it is often not localized to any part of the body. Surgery and more targeted forms of treatment are therefore largely excluded.
Azaelea Bleichner battles chronic myeloid leukemia and celebrates her release from a second extended hospitalization on April 3, 2021, after 47 days of inpatient care. Submitted photo
To undergo treatment, Jessica said, her daughter had to undergo a daunting chemotherapy regimen that put pressure on every cell of Azaelea’s body and wiped out parts of her healthy blood cells in the hopes it would eradicate the cancerous culprits all over the world. lurked. Azaelea often needed blood transfusions to make up for the loss, which was an untenable solution in the long run as the body can only take so many foreign blood transfusions before it develops self-related problems.
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There were other complications as well – some serious and life-threatening. During an apheresis treatment – essentially a type of dialysis to filter and oxygenate the blood when it is coagulated by chemotherapy – a specialist inserted some sort of catheter into Azaelea’s neck and accidentally inserted her neck and clavicular arteries punctured. This caused the blood to pool internally, which put tremendous pressure on her lungs. It was a situation that could have been fatal.
As this emergency unfolded and medical professionals took action, Jessica – who was the only parent present due to the COVID-19 protocols – had to endure a painful period of uncertainty.
“It was quite difficult,” said Jessica. “I was with her at the time, as only one parent was allowed to be with a patient at a time, so my husband and I couldn’t be there together. I was alone in a waiting room during all this. It was probably the lowest point of all. “
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It’s been a slow, arduous path up, Jessica said, but at least it’s going up. Doctors determined that Azaelea did not respond to treatment, that her body could no longer receive transfusions and that a bone marrow transplant was therefore in order. Fortunately, a 29-year-old German man turned out to be a match, and Azaelea is currently undergoing a lengthy process of injecting healthy donor cells into the bloodstream, where they can seep and take root in her body.
Azaelea Bleichner (center) battles chronic myeloid leukemia and, together with health care providers, is celebrating her release from the hospital on April 3, 2021, after 47 days of inpatient care. Submitted photo
Her immune system remains compromised, meaning she has become isolated during a long impatient stay and has recently passed 70 days in a 100-day period where she has to live isolated from children’s hospital within 30 minutes. With an 80% chance of curing the condition, her prognosis is looking better, although it is always possible that Azaelea will need checkups and various forms of medication for the rest of her life.
In her family’s eyes, Azaelea is described as a gentle soul who is kind, loving and empathetic, with a special affinity for animals and the ambition to become a Harvard-trained attorney fighting injustice. Now, after more than 12 months of upheaval – of the mind and body, of the home and of the world – Jessica said that Azaelea showed a different side to her personality: toughness and a steel sense of determination.
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“I’ve learned she’s so strong,” said her sister Lily. “She’s been through something I can’t even fathom. She is the strongest person I know. “
There are also lessons about the nature of humanity and society – many of them uncomfortable, some painful. Like the mother of an immunocompromised child, Jessica said, it’s always a daunting experience to see so many people in the Brainerd Lake District turn down masks because it could temporarily inconvenience them.
On the other hand, the Bleichner family has faced backlash from other members of the community over scientific misconceptions. Because Azaelea’s treatments are deeply rooted in stem cell technology, Jessica said, some people have denounced them as “ baby killers, ” even though not a single fetus was involved and the Azaelea transplant is based on stem cells harvested from a adult.
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But that’s not to say it’s just been a lesson in people’s uglier side. Jessica was quick to praise Holden Electric Co, who she said bent over backwards to protect Jesse’s health benefits, despite not being able to work enough hours to meet the minimum coverage benchmark. Without the help of institutions such as the Childhood Cancer Research Fund, Be The Match, Doug the Pug Foundation, and others, Jessica said, Azaelea’s path to recovery might not be possible. And then it’s the little things like the tireless work of social workers and carers that helped the Bleichners bear their burdens.
It is often said that there is no stronger bond than between a mother and her child. It is also often said that it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps, if there is one lesson to be learned from 2020 and Azaelea’s journey, it is that – whether you are a mother or a daughter; whether you are an adult or a child – it takes the efforts of a community to protect and support all of us.
“I am very grateful to our community. We love the Brainerd area. It’s home, and we can’t wait to get home, ”Jessica said. “We are very grateful to everyone in our community who really gathered around us and helped. There are many good people in Brainerd. “
Readers can follow Azaelea’s journey on Facebook at tinyurl.com/u9h23n2n. People can donate to Azaelea’s GoFundMe page at gf.me/u/xu62rg set up for her medical expenses.
GABRIEL LAGARDE can be reached via [email protected] or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.