After returning from a weekend horse show in June 2005, Collin Bartels was in a lot of pain. He didn’t know why.
By Tuesday, his legs hurt so badly he could barely walk. Working his construction job with Emery Sapp & Sons was out of the question. Riding horses on his grandfather’s pasture in Columbia was unthinkable.
By Wednesday, the pain was so bad that his mother, Tina Bartels, took her then-16-year-old son to their pediatrician. He was referred to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City where he had a magnetic resonance imaging scan on his right knee.
When the oncologist came back with the MRI results, the news made June 9, 2005, one horrible day.
Collin Bartels had cancer. Again.
“Initially, we didn’t think it was cancer at all,” his mother said. “He had been off of chemotherapy for five years so we thought he was cured, cancer-free. But we thought maybe this is one of the long-term side effects of the chemo.”
But it wasn’t a side effect of chemotherapy. It was leukemia. Again.
At age 3, Collin Bartels had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia and went through an intense 2 1/2 years of chemotherapy. He was a cancer-free kindergartner.
Still, the doctors can’t definitively say if the new development of cancer was a relapse from childhood or an entirely independent case. Whichever, the effect was still the same: Bartels began to get sick, quickly.
“It was 95 degrees outside, and I was sitting outside on my deck in a sleeping bag because I was so cold,” he said. “I had fevers up to 105 (degrees).”
Just eight days after finishing his sophomore year at Rock Bridge High School, he began a summer-long treatment schedule. While his friends were enjoying the warm weather, summer sports and pools, by August, he was receiving the cancer drug Gleevec.
Despite FDA warnings of heart problems associated with the promising drug, Gleevec has kept “anywhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of patients cancer-free for at least five years,” according to the Pharmaceutical Business Review’s Web site.
But even with the drug, Bartels’ life was in extreme danger. His left lung was three-fourths filled with blood. He was going in and out of consciousness.
That summer Bartels had a severe allergic reaction to the drug and, by mistake, he was taking less than one-third of the recommended dosage.
Billy Sapp, his grandfather, said the reaction to Gleevec nearly killed his grandson.
“(Gleevec) attacked his body, his immune system. It totally went to his lungs,” Sapp said. “It made his lungs bleed inside. He wasn’t getting better, and it took a while to figure out (that it was the drug).”
Doctors had to work fast to save his life. He was given a 5 percent chance to live if he didn’t have a bone marrow transplant right away.
On November 17, 2005, he received a bone marrow transplant at Children’s Mercy Hospital from an overseas donor. He stayed at the hospital for 72 days.
When he had the transplant, his white blood cell count was at zero; his immune system was shutting down. He could no longer fight infection.
As a result, he was put into a sterile transplant unit.
“You would have to see it,” he said. “You walk in and double doors close behind you. Then you wash your hands and go to the next room where two more double doors are. There, the air was purified, because anything in the air I got.”
Despite the precautions, Bartels said three of the five other patients in the unit died while he was there.
Meanwhile, his friends were enjoying high school. He was stuck in the hospital.
“I didn’t go to school for one day my junior year. It was awful,” he said. “That’s the time I took back all the things I said before about hating school, because I wanted to go so bad. It was just boring in the hospital.”
Bartels was able to keep up in school and graduate on time with the help of tutors and the Web site caringbridge.com. The site is designed to allow families to stay in touch with online journals and updates while a member of the family is ill.
Some friends asked him what he did while he was in the hospital. What he didn’t do was play video games or even watch television.
“It’s amazing how bad you can feel,” Bartels said. “I didn’t even feel like watching TV. It took too much energy to open my eyes and look at the TV.”
In February of 2006, his family took him home against his doctors’ orders.
“He could see his friends and family again and got better and better every day. Every day,” Sapp said. “In Kansas City, he was just blah. When he got home, every day you could see a sparkle in his eye.”
By May of 2006, Bartels’ health was more stable. It had been about six months since the transplant and he was now eating on a more regular basis. He was keeping more normal meals down.
Bartels, who is now cancer-free, will compete in this weekend’s Missouri State High School Rodeo Championships held at the Boone County Fairgrounds.
He will compete in the cutting competition held today, Friday, and Saturday. In order to win, he will have to successfully separate two cows from a herd in the shortest amount of time.
Now able to return to horseback riding and rodeo, Bartels appreciates his time in the saddle a bit more than before.
“Before I got sick, I‘d get out of school, nearly break my neck to get out here (to his grandfather’s stables) and change just to ride the horses,” he said. “I wasn’t able to ride for a year-and-a-half, so when the doctors told me I could ride again, it was an exciting time.”
He also said going to shows is enjoyable, but it goes deeper than the competitions.
“Being out here, going out and riding on the trails, riding at home and practicing, that is what I really love.”