The leukemia came on like a thunderclap. One week, David Rhodes was playing golf by day and ballroom dancing with his wife by night. The next, recalled the retired chemist from Dixon, Calif., "I could hardly walk 100 feet."
Rhodes was 69 at the time, and the prognosis for a person of his age with acute myeloid leukemia was poor. He underwent a course of chemotherapy, but relapsed after about nine months.
That's when his oncologist approached Richman about a transplant. After some tests, Rhodes recalled, "they decided I was in good physical shape and took a chance on me."
Until recently, a senior citizen would not have been cleared for such a procedure. Historically, the high-dose chemotherapy that precedes a transplant was too toxic for patients over 50. Gradually, however, the use of less-toxic but still highly immunosuppressive drugs have paved the way for reduced-intensity transplants suitable for older patients. Rhodes got the green light.
One of seven children, he found a donor in a younger brother, Phil, living in Jackson, Miss. The sibling's healthy stem cells were transferred to the ailing Rhodes on March 15 of last year.
Rhodes battled some complications after the transplant – rashes, fatigue, heart issues, intestinal surgery – and stayed in his house for months to avoid exposure to germs. Slowly, the Ironman regained strength. He now walks more than a mile a day on his treadmill and holds the title as UC Davis' oldest donor stem cell transplant patient.
"I could not have made it without Virginia," he says, referring to his wife. "Having her there with me made it possible to get through the tough parts."
His next goal? To return full throttle to the hobby he and Virginia so dearly love: ballroom dancing.
"The transplant prolonged my life, I would have died without it," Rhodes says. "And my fingers are crossed that it will allow me to continue doing the things I love."