Steve Bulat, with his wife, Ella, moved out of state for six months to receive a lifesaving bone marrow transplant. They hope this care will soon be available in Fargo.

Fighting cancer far from home: survivor conveys need for transplant center in Fargo

May 23, 2019

Imagine that you’re diagnosed with cancer and given an 8 percent chance of survival.

You endure a vicious course of chemotherapy with debilitating side effects. But that is only the beginning of your battle. Your best hope for a cure — and a future with your loved ones — is a bone marrow transplant that will require moving out of state for six months.

That is exactly what Steve Bulat experienced. And while his story is particularly incredible, the hardships of traveling far from home for a bone marrow transplant aren’t unique among patients across the Fargo region.

 

A shocking diagnosis

Following a routine physical, Steve was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer in January 2015. He immediately began chemotherapy near his home at Roger Maris Cancer Center.

But with no transplant center in Fargo, Steve and his wife, Ella, made arrangements to undergo the procedure in Minneapolis, where the nearest program operates.

Knowing the procedure and recovery time can take weeks to months, the Bulats left their jobs and said goodbye to family and friends. They headed out of town to face one of the most challenging and uncertain times of their lives in an unfamiliar place.

“There’s a lot of anxiety with that whole process, then to leave home is just overwhelming,” Ella said.

“It was devastating,” Steve added. “It also affected our daughters. They were so frightened. If something happens, they can’t just jump in the car and be there in 10 minutes.”

 

Facing setbacks

Steve was blessed that his brother was a 100 percent match. But he faced a number of setbacks before he could even receive the infusion of healthy blood stem cells to replace his own.

At one point, an infection sent his temperature to 106 degrees, leading to an extended hospital stay. Later, his gall bladder, damaged by the chemotherapy, had to be removed.

Finally, Steve was well enough for the transplant, and the procedure went smoothly. He recovered quickly, but followed protocol that requires patients to remain close to the transplant center for another 100 days.

“Your immune system is so compromised,” Steve explained. “You need to stay within 30 minutes of the hospital and be with a caregiver at all times. An infection can happen that quickly.

“It would have been so nice to be in Fargo. We could have gone home every night. For us, it’s a 10-minute drive to Roger Maris.”

On top of everything, during their time away, the couple’s home flooded, causing $75,000 in damage. Had they been at home, the Bulats could have easily prevented the leakage, but as with most things these days, Steve only sees the positive.

“Insurance covered it all,” he said.  “And when we returned to Fargo in September, we were able to stay with our daughter and enjoy time with our granddaughters until our house was repaired.”

Giving back

Today, Steve’s cancer is in remission. Fittingly, his oncologist at Roger Maris, Dr. Gerald Gross, has nicknamed Steve “Miracle Man” for beating all the odds.

Feeling that he survived for a greater purpose, Steve now volunteers as a mentor for patients at Roger Maris who receive a cancer diagnosis similar to his.

“I figure, I survived. I’m still here. I’ve got to give back somehow,” Steve said.

Since he started mentoring two years ago, Steve says he has worked with about 20 patients. For those who need to travel to Minnesota for a bone marrow transplant, he helps navigate the procedure, finances and lodging.

Steve notes that he and Ella, who served as his full-time caretaker, had been fortunate in many ways. In particular, they were at an age where they could leave their jobs and receive company benefits, which alleviated financial concerns. But for many families he meets with, that’s not the case. Especially for those with young children, Steve says, the challenges of receiving a transplant far from home — on top of fighting a life-threatening disease — are inconceivable.

“When you have a transplant, you have to have a caregiver with you 24/7,” Steve said. “It would be a lot different if you could stay at home for this care. You’d get to see family and friends more, your spouse could keep working and there’d be less financial burden.

“Having a transplant center in Fargo would be unbelievable.”

 

Reimagine the future of cancer care

Investment in the Reimagine campaign will shape the future of care at Roger Maris Cancer Center and support bold new initiatives, like the region’s first bone marrow transplant center, to save more lives, closer to home.