A Man’s Life: Reset
by Will Yank ’19
I was on top of the world.
As I walked off the plane to begin my internship in Washington, DC, last summer, I got those butterflies you get when you’re in a new place and have no idea where to go. I was excited—ready to learn more about myself, about living on my own, and about living as an adult.
Then I almost lost my life.
I turned 21 on June 12 and got a bad sore throat a week later. One of those scratchy ones that hurts when you swallow, but this one hurt all the time. I gave it a day then went to urgent care, where they swabbed my throat and told me I had mono. They gave me mouthwash, but that’s all they could do.
I started sleeping all day every day to rest up and get back to work. I was eating well, drinking plenty of fluids.
On June 20 I walked out to the fridge in the apartment I shared. My roommate came out to talk to me, but I was rambling on and delirious. I couldn’t open the fridge door to get a bottle of water. I couldn’t even stand up straight.
My roommate told me he was going to take me to the emergency room, but I told him we didn’t need to go. I didn’t want to make him stay up any later than he already had. He insisted.
This is when my memory gets foggy: I arrived at the ER at Cibley Hospital in DC, signed some paperwork, climbed into the hospital bed, and they took some blood for testing. A few hours later I was diagnosed with septic shock, organ failure, and acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The doctor pretty much rushed in and said, “Hey, Will, you have leukemia.”
I remember thinking, Dude…whoa. There’s no way. I blacked out for a week.
How could I be sick? I worked out, I was strong, and I never put myself in harm’s way. I had taken care of my body, and it betrayed me, trying to literally kill itself from the inside out.
My boss notified my parents and I was taken by ambulance to the ICU at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. Luckily for me, it’s one of the best places in the country to treat my illness. Doctors began putting all these antibiotics and fluids into me and I went from 180 pounds to 210 pounds. All liquid—just an oversaturation of liquid. My body was swollen like a pumpkin.
All that weight made every movement painful. At the same time a staph infection was ravaging my body, creating abscesses in my brain and spinal cord, eating my muscles and skin.
As the swelling went down, I went from 210 pounds to 150 pounds. If you’re doing the math, that’s a 60-pound loss.
There are photos taken during that time that show the red splotches on my body where the infections were eating my skin. I still have a wound on my forearm and another on my right shoulder. I’ll spare you the gory details of the skin sloughing off. I’ve watched a tendon rebuild in my forearm. I’ve watched blood vessels form. It’s crazy what the human body can do.
It seems like I was cracking open a few cold ones with Death, as if he was hanging out with me saying it was my time to go. I said, “Not yet—we’re not going to end this here.”
Eventually I woke up and was able to talk with my family. I remember looking in a mirror. My hair was gone, there were wounds and splotches all over my body.
I couldn’t stand the sight of myself. My mom asked me what I was thinking, and I told her I was scared of myself—torn, shredded. I hated the way I looked.
I broke down.
I let these raw and pure emotions out. I let them go because carrying any more of a burden myself was insanity. One of the hardest things to hear was that I would be unable to return to school that fall. I hated the idea of not being able to graduate with my class, these people I cared about so much. I hadn’t fully understood what my body was facing. I thought I had a bad case of the flu and that I would recover within a week. I despised the idea of taking a year off just to “be sick.”
During almost two months at Johns Hopkins I lost all the muscle mass I had been working to build since my senior year in high school. Everything I had worked for deteriorated.
I actually had to learn how to walk again. Because I am 6’ 7” my heart struggled to pump blood throughout my body. I passed out regularly. I was at a loss.
The disease put me on reset mode.
A nurse had to give me baths. I’m talking cleaning everything. I’m 21 years old! I lost my pride, my dignity, and any control I thought I had over my body.
But my nurse treated me with the utmost respect. She even played music to help ease my anxiety and embarrassment.
My family had to help feed me. They and my nurses would help me to the bathroom. I never thought that my sister would have to help me wipe my butt at age 21. I remember looking into her eyes one night and apologizing because I couldn’t do it myself. I knew how to do it, but I didn’t know how to tell my body to do it.
I couldn’t wipe my own butt. It’s kind of funny now. I think my sister and I are closer than ever today.
The only option I had was to submit. Submit, not to the disease, but to the people caring for me. I had to accept that they were helping me, and that was the only way I was going to get out of there.
And I did. My last bone marrow check at Johns Hopkins showed about 8.8% of the leukemia was left in my body, and they allowed me to come back to Indiana with my family.
Getting home was the most amazing feeling. Friends and family members were waiting for me as I got off the plane.
I had finally made it home.
The battle wasn’t over yet. I continued my treatments at Riley Children’s Hospital for two more months, and doctors expected them to continue for three years. I headed back to Baltimore where they withdrew T-cells from my body and genetically engineered them to attack the leukemia.
Eight months into the treatments and ten days into this new year, I found out I was officially in remission.
When I think back on those months, I see my body decaying. I see the nurse bathing me as I lay naked on the table, unable to move. There were so many emotions wrapped up in each of those moments. I used those same emotions to fuel my recovery.
The sadness, shock, pain, even the feelings of helplessness, made me realize I was in dire need of the care I was getting. They motivated me to learn how to walk again. I actually looked forward to the physical therapist’s sessions. They gave me hope.
I needed to be raw with myself. I needed to experience these emotions.
I’ve learned to be more patient, with myself and others. I’ve learned to surrender and ask for help.
I’ve learned what it means to be truly vulnerable.
WILL YANK ’19 is an English major and business minor, a FIJI, a student in the Center for Innovation, Business, and Entrepreneurship, a model, and a dedicated vlogger.
Photo by Steven Brokaw