When we hear the stories of people who have battled a serious illness like cancer, you can’t help but be struck by the resilience and strength of human nature. It may sound cliché, but there is something very true about deciding to shrug off your small hurts and problems in light of the tremendous struggle of patients whose diagnosis threatens their very existence.
Erik Kudelka’s story is an exceptional one of human determination in the face of adversity. This 31-year-old from Pierrefonds went through an incredible ordeal without losing hope and while striving to achieve his goal of getting his university degree. Erik is also surrounded by a family who is just as exceptional as he is. His father donated cells (and you could even say part of his entire immune system) and recently gave his son a kidney.
In 2005, Erik was living the normal life of a student who was simply trying to keep up with his university classes and finish his entomology courses on time. But a diagnosis of acute leukemia threw a wrench in his plans. During our interview, Erik thought back to the onset of the disease: “I felt very tired, but since I was living the hectic life of a student, i.e., not sleeping much and not eating a good diet, I thought that’s what was wrong. I knew there was a problem when I started getting nosebleeds.”
A blood test confirmed he had leukemia. He immediately started treatment within half an hour, which he says ended up being a good thing, as taking action right away prevented him from thinking about things too much and succumbing to anxiety.
Erik was also happy that his studies in biology helped him better understand his disease. “My knowledge gave me insight instead of leaving me in the dark. That helped a lot. In fact, I’m the one who had to reassure my mother.”
A series of chemotherapy treatments put Eric into remission, but the disease then came back with a vengeance. His doctors tried a stem cell donation, but the attempt to find a perfectly matched donor from the world bank came up empty. He had a stem cell transplant from an imperfectly matched donor and went into another brief remission, but the disease came back again. This time, Erik’s doctors sent him home with little hope.
Cellular therapy became Eric’s last resort and the best hope for a lasting recovery. At the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, Erik started a care program, which was very experimental at the time, under the supervision of scientific director Dr. Denis-Claude Roy.
“I didn’t meet all the criteria to start the protocol—for example, my cancer had come back—but Dr. Roy saw my determination and youth and agreed to include me.”
The researcher warned Eric that the treatment had risks. Everything was on the table, and there was no guarantee it would work.
The experimental treatment consisted of a transfusion of stem cell platelets. But there was a basic issue of cell compatibility, and Eric needed a close relative to donate. Eric’s father, Julius, ended up donating his cells.
The treatment was gruelling: Eric’s cancer kept coming back, and each time he had to undergo the procedure again with stem cells from his father.
In the end, the approach of the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont bore fruit, as the cancer was eradicated from Erik’s body. Eric has been in remission for eight years, although he has had other complications and side effects from his treatment. For example, his kidneys were saturated with massive quantities of transfused platelets.
He was on dialysis for four years until 2014, when his condition was stable enough for him to have a kidney transplant. Again, his father stepped up to donate the organ. Eric has also had to deal with other health issues, like hip problems and cataracts.
Despite everything, Eric and his family have fully embraced life and are looking to the future. This spring, Erik reached another of his main life goals, as he finally received his degree in zoology from McGill University.