BMT for Life: Meet Brandon Nuechterlein
Brandon Nuechterlein landed at Denver International Airport and an ambulance rushed him to Children's Colorado for emergency surgery.
Cancer survivor Brandon Nuechterlein
reviews an X-ray with Children's Colorado
Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders staff.
This was Nuechterlein's return from Phuket, Thailand - an exotic island in the Andaman Sea - where he had lived with his parents and Thai grandmother for eight years.
There, in 1998, Nuechterlein had begun to feel bone pain, seemingly out of nowhere. Tests in Phuket revealed little and doctors surmised he had malaria or the dengue (yellow fever), common ailments in that part of the world.
Doctors diagnose Nuechterlein with cancer
Doctors performed tests and blood transfusions in Phuket, but without an accurate diagnosis, the pain continued and Nuechterlein's health deteriorated. His mother called Children's Hospital Colorado - her hometown pediatric hospital - and asked what could possibly be wrong with her son. Leukemia, the doctor told her, without pause.
Nuechterlein's physicians flew him to Bangkok, where they confirmed his diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and acute myeloblastic leukemia. According to Nuechterlein, the capital's "gorgeous" hospitals - more like five-star hotels - didn't treat cancer, so he would have to return to America if he wanted to live. At 15 years old and five feet, 10 inches, he now weighed just 100 pounds and didn't know if he would survive the international flight.
When Nuechterlein woke up from his first surgery at Children's Colorado, he had in five central lines.
"I got very lucky," Nuechterlein said of his late diagnosis and emergency treatment.
Thereafter, he went into remission following intense chemotherapy, only to relapse three weeks later: he had bilineage leukemia, an extremely high-risk cancer.
"I basically had a death sentence," Nuechterlein said, "and a frequent flier card to the ICU."
For the next two years, Nuechterlein battled his cancer and the resulting sequelae (or a pathological condition resulting from a disease) from the intense chemotherapy and total body irradiation he received prior to his Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT), missing most of high school.
Cancer recovery at Children's Colorado inspires Nuechterlein's career path in BMT
But Nuechterlein knew since that first surgery, that if he survived, he wanted a career in BMT.
And survive he did. Once healthy, Nuechterlein wasted no time earning his GED so he could attend the University of Colorado, Denver, where he earned a degree in psychology. Two days after graduation, he began the physician's assistant program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. In his third year, he completed his clinical rotations, nine of them at Children's Colorado.
It was only a matter of time before Nuechterlein returned as a full-time employee to the place that saved his life. In 2009, Children's Colorado's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders hired him as a physician assistant in the BMT clinic.
"The doctors here are amazing," Nuechterlein said, explaining that their positive attitude and willingness to try new treatments cured him. "And now I get to practice with them."
Working with cancer patients at Children's Colorado to instill a sense of hope
These days, Nuechterlein works with some of the hospital's most challenging cases, whose patients' survival rates can be as low as 10 percent, due to the extremely aggressive nature of their cancers.
"I think it gives families hope to have me around," he said. "Their diagnosis can sound like a death sentence. You hear the numbers, but to see a survivor standing in front of you is completely different."
"Some of these teens are on 30 meds. I took every one of those meds when I was their age."
Nuechterlein describes BMT as a "continually evolving field" that can have a multitude of applications beyond cancer, such as treatment for genetic diseases. "Every year there are new advances and new indications for BMT."
Nuechterlein is currently working to establish a post-graduate physician assistant program, specifically for pediatric BMT and Oncology, offered at the University of Colorado School of Medicine with a post graduate residency program at Children's Colorado. Once this program is developed and accredited it would be the first of its kind in the world.
"There's a great demand for physician assistants in BMT and Oncology, but currently there are no schools focused on pediatrics."
For the time being, though, Nuechterlein is focusing on giving advice to his many patients: "People should never give up hope. Stats don't mean anything when you have a sample size of one."
Learn about the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children's.