“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Introduction by Bob Aronson
Dawn Anita Plumlee is family. I am proud to say she is not only a member of my personal family, but also my larger extended one, the Organ Donation family. She and her sister, Dr. Priscilla Diffic-Couch are frequent contributors here.
Dawn Anita has never had an organ transplant and likely won’t need one, nor has anyone in her immediate family, but she is as committed to our cause as any one of us who has either given or received a life-saving organ.
Dawn Anita and her husband Jerry have met adversity up close and personal, slapped it in the face, shoved it aside and forged ahead. They are two of the most positive people I know and share our passion for saving lives.
In a song, Kenny Rogers advised us to, “Know when to hold em, and Know when to fold em…” Dawn Anita knows and she ain’t likely to “Fold em” any time soon.
This inspirational story is true. Dawn Anita Credits her many successes to attitude and the power of positive thinking. This is her account of just one of those journeys.
The Power Of Positive Thinking
By Dawn Anita Plumlee
Lying in my hospital bed staring into the darkness while listening to the gloomy sounds that ring out in a hospital in the middle of the night…. buzzers beeping, patients calling for help and the sound of nurses’ footsteps scurrying down the hall, I was trying hard to wash the negative thoughts from my mind. I glanced over at my dear devoted husband Jerry sound asleep in the hospital chair beside my bed. His body was twisted, cramped and confined. He looked very uncomfortable. I smiled when I saw that he hadn’t bothered to take off his cowboy boots. One toe was pointing to the ceiling and the other was pointing towards the wall. Soft, intermittent snoring sounds filled the air. Warm thoughts flooded my mind knowing he would go to the ends of the earth and back for me. I knew he was worried, and it was difficult for me to comprehend that I was here waiting for a blood transfusion. I closed my eyes and my thoughts drifted back in time to the events that had taken place over the past few months.
It was 2013. I turned 71 on my birthday, but in my heart I felt more like I was 51. Life had treated me good those 71 years, I had a wonderful husband of 55 years, two beautiful children, seven terrific grandchildren, and three precious great-grandchildren. My health was excellent. I had never had any major illness and was not taking any kind of medication. I was retired and enjoyed the time I spent working on our small ranch, riding horses, taking care of cattle, and helping with the everyday chores that occur on a ranch. I was still active in music, writing songs, recording and singing and was preparing to enter the Miss Senior Oklahoma Pageant for the second time.
I thought of all the hours Jerry and I had spent over the last few years clearing timber behind our house. The work was hard, dusty and dirty, and it seemed to be a never-ending chore, picking up stumps, trimming trees, and burning brush piles, driving the tractor disking and harrowing preparing the ground for planting grass. It was exhausting work and my energy level seemed to drain quickly, sometimes struggling to even catch my breath but never admitting to myself that anything was wrong.
My husband and I were taking our early morning walk when I suddenly stopped and exclaimed to him, “I can’t seem to walk and talk at the same time without running out of breath.” I thought to myself, “Boy, I have really let myself get out of shape,” so I began walking faster and longer. My stamina and ability to walk and talk without running out of breath did not seem to be improving.
Not wanting to admit anything could be wrong with my health, I dismissed the fact that I had suddenly dropped ten pounds, I experienced nausea nearly every day, my urine was a dark color, and I was constantly fatigued. My blood pressure regularly registered extremely low, and I knew something with my body wasn’t 100%, but I would not allow myself to be overly concerned. After all I was tough. I was a great believer in the power of positive thinking, so I was optimistic and believed strongly that I would be able to overcome any problems that I was having.
I had chosen to perform an Elvis medley for my talent in the Miss Senior Oklahoma Pageant. The songs were upbeat, and it was my nature to put everything into each of my performances moving energetically on stage. During rehearsals I noticed I could not move as I normally did without becoming winded. I would have to bend over and breathe deeply in order to continue. The night of my actual performance, I gave it my all, but when I watched my performance on video, I was very disappointed. I knew I was subconsciously protecting myself during my performance in order to make it through the medley.
Dialing the phone, I felt weak and a wave of nausea hit me. Our daughter “Punkin” answered the phone and said anxiously, “What is it Mom?” I didn’t want to worry her. This was a very special occasion. Her daughter Rachel (our granddaughter) was getting married and the reception dinner was this evening. Fighting to hold back tears, I said, “Punkin, I’m not feeling very good, and I am so sorry, but Dad and I cannot make it to Rachel’s reception dinner, but we will definitely be at her wedding tomorrow.” Concerned, Punkin said, “Mom, are you okay?” Bravely, I replied, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine by tomorrow. Tell Rachel we’re sorry, and we’ll see her at the wedding.”
My dad died at the age of 80 with congestive heart failure. Since I was experiencing shortness of breath, I was fearful that I might be having heart trouble, and I knew I had to find a primary care doctor. The first thing the doctor did was routinely complete blood work. They drew my blood on Tuesday. On Wednesday I received a call from the doctor’s office saying they needed to draw some more blood. I went in on Thursday morning and gave some additional blood not really thinking much about it.
Late that afternoon I was helping my husband Jerry unload a truckload of sod to put on the lawn. Each time I grabbed a roll of sod and placed it on the lawn, I would have to bend over and catch my breath a minute before continuing. Pulling some sod off the truck, I noticed the farrier had arrived to shoe our horses. Jerry told me to go help him, and he would finish putting the sod on the lawn. Relieved, I happily went out to catch the horses for the farrier. I was surprised when I saw Jerry walking out to the barn motioning for me to come to him. He said, “Dawn Anita, the doctor’s office called five times and left word for you to call right away.” Knowing it was past 5:00, I said, “They’ll be closed now, I’ll call in the morning,” to which Jerry replied, “No, go call them now.”
Dialing the number, I thought to myself, “I wonder what they could possibly want?” As I had predicted, their office was closed, so I left a message. In less than thirty seconds the phone rang. It was the nurse from the doctor’s office. A little too urgently she said, “Mrs. Plumlee, you need to get to the emergency room right away.” Confused, I asked, “What’s the problem?” to which she replied, “You have severe anemia and we have alerted ER that you are on your way.” I thought to myself, “Anemia, that doesn’t sound that urgent.” I asked, “Can’t this wait until tomorrow? Am I going to die tonight or what?” Jerry grabbed the phone and said, “Quit arguing with her, we’re going to the hospital right now.”
The waiting room at the ER was full when we arrived. Thinking I was in for a long wait, I walked to the front desk and gave them my name. The receptionist jumped up, motioned me through the door, quickly looked at my ID and medical cards and sent me back to a room. In less than five minutes, the doctor was there. Jokingly, I said, “Hey, Doc, my insurance must really pay good for you to get here so quick.” I realize now I was using humor to hide my fear of what was happening.
The doctor informed me that my hemoglobin count (HGB) was 5.4, which was less than half of what it should be. That was a little alarming, but I didn’t realize just how serious it was. The doctor then asked “Mrs. Plumlee have you been bleeding anywhere?” and I responded, “Not that I’m aware of.” I guess he didn’t believe me, because he proceeded to perform a couple of rather unpleasant tests. A portable x-ray machine was wheeled into the room for x-rays of my chest, and the hospital ran several tests on my blood. The doctor ruled out cancer and indicated further testing would need to be done. I heard him say to the nurse “This might turn into a difficult case,” and he then told me he had ordered three units of blood. I was doing my best to be positive, but fear started creeping up my spine and my heart started beating faster; it felt like I couldn’t breathe.
And that’s how I ended up in the hospital waiting for a blood transfusion. My sister Priscilla called several times to see if they had given me the transfusion yet. I thought how nice it was of her to be so worried about me. I have to admit, I was more than a little worried myself, but if I had known what she knew, I would have been frantic. Most people with HGB as low as mine are not up and walking around. The organs begin to shut down, you’re a likely candidate for a heart attack, and it is not unusual for someone to lapse into a coma. Around 7:00 the next morning, the nurses changed shifts, and a new nurse came into my room. With a surprised look she said, “Oh, you’re awake.” I replied, “Oh yes, I’ve been awake most of the night,” not realizing that she had checked my stats before coming into my room, and she fully expected me to be in a coma.
Apparently the blood bank was having difficulty finding a match due to the antibodies in my blood. After 12 hours, I finally received three units. They tested it again after the transfusions, and my HGB had risen 4.2 points…thank goodness! My doctor came by before I was released, gave me some Prednisone and handed me a prescription. She told me that by tomorrow I should be feeling much better. She said she had referred my case to an oncologist/hematologist at the Cancer Center, and they would be calling me in a few days to set an appointment.
The next morning, I kept thinking, “The doctor said I should feel better today, but I have this strange sensation running through my veins.” I told Jerry I needed to lie down for a while. When I awoke, I heard voices in the kitchen and realized Jerry was talking to our son, Jerry Don. When I walked into the kitchen, tears were running down Jerry’s cheeks, and with a heavy voice, he said, “I thought I lost you because you always wake up when the phone rings, but you didn’t wake up, so I called Jerry Don.” I threw my arms around his neck and said, “I’m not going anywhere. I can beat this; I have lots of other things I need to do before I go anywhere.” He held me in his arms for a long time and softly whispered, “I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
Walking into the Cancer Center, I glanced around at the people in the waiting room. There was one older gentleman sitting crumpled over in a wheel chair, a lady with no hair sitting on a couch, breathing through an oxygen tube, and a frail looking older couple sitting quietly holding hands. I thought to myself, “I don’t belong here; these people are really sick.” The nurse drew my blood and sent me to another room to see the doctor. After that visit, I was at the reception desk making another appointment when the doctor suddenly appeared holding a slip of paper.
With a wide smile, he said, “Here are your results.” My HGB reading was 11.4, and I thought “Hallelujah!” I started jumping up and down clapping my hands with joy. Ever so gently the doctor reached out took my hand and hugged my neck.
My diagnosis was hemolytic anemia, and the hematologist was trying hard to determine what was causing the anemia. Over the next several months, he ran what I thought must have been every blood test that existed which included HIV and Hepatitis C and B. Every test was negative. He performed a bone marrow test, which also came back negative. Every time I went in for yet another test, I would experience small panic attacks. “What if my HGB has gone down; why can’t they find out what’s wrong?”
Since the blood tests revealed nothing that indicated the source of my anemia, my doctor ordered a CT scan of my chest. Picking up the results of the test to take to the pulmonologist, the words on the report jumped out at me, “Multiple findings in the chest highly suspicious for atypical infection mainly mycobacterium avium complex (Mac Lung Disease) which can have an identical appearance as tuberculosis.” Deep inside I knew. I had Mac Lung Disease.
The pulmonologist did a bronchoscopy and washed my lungs out with saline. It would take several weeks for the cultures to grow before I would know the test results. The nurse called each time a test result was received, and so far they were all negative. When she called to say the doctor needed to see me, she didn’t have to tell me the results, I knew.
Sitting on the examination table waiting for the pulmonologist, I was trying my best to remain calm. The doctor’s voice seemed to be far off in the distance as he told me I had Mac Lung Disease. I felt like I was outside of myself listening to him, all the while thinking, “This can’t be happening to me.” He told me I needed to start taking 3 antibiotics a day for a period of 18 months; the medication could affect my liver and kidneys, and two of them could cause color blindness and blurred vision. In a state of confusion, I asked, “How did I get this?”
He replied, “You can get it from the ground, the water and the air,” and then it dawned on me…. all the hours I had spent picking up stumps, trimming trees, driving the tractor with no cab, being constantly exposed to all that dirt and dust. I had compromised my immune system and now I have this disease (MAC lung disease is not spread by person to person contact and is not considered to be contagious. It is a fairly rare disease with fewer than one person in 10,000 becoming sick from it).
I was not prepared to commit to taking the antibiotics. In a state of shock, I went home and started frantically searching the Internet for natural remedies. I tried quite a few of them over a period of several months. None of them worked. My hemoglobin dropped drastically again, and I went back to see the pulmonologist. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I could barely utter the words, “I’m afraid to take the antibiotics. Is there anything else I can do?” I could see the compassion in his eyes when he said, “I think I need to make you an appointment with an infectious disease doctor for a second opinion.”
The infectious disease doctor could not believe I had Mac Lung Disease. I had no symptoms associated with the disease, and he informed me that hemolytic anemia was not common with Mac Lung Disease. He stated he had HIV patients whose hemoglobin was not as low as mine. He thought they must have made a mistake on the reading, and he made the comment; “There is no way you could have been walking around with a reading that low. That would be like driving 100 miles in a car with no gas in the tank.” I told him my doctor and the hospital ran the test twice, and they both came up with the same results. He made the comment, “If I didn’t have your test results in front of me, I would not believe you have the disease.” For that reason, we decided to wait and see if I displayed any symptoms before starting the medication.
Once again, my hemoglobin plunged to an unsafe level. I spent many sleepless nights worrying about what I should do. If I didn’t take the antibiotics I could die, but if I did take them, I could be deathly ill for months from the effects of the medication or even lose my eyesight, and I would have no quality of life at all. Neither my hematologist nor my infectious disease doctor could definitely say that my anemia was caused from Mac Lung Disease, and they could not assure me that the antibiotics would cure my anemia.
I turned to my loved ones hoping they could help me make a decision. They were all concerned and wanted to help, but in the end, I knew it must be my decision. I thought about the terrible side effects of the antibiotics and the scary results reported by folks who had taken the antibiotics. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about how the medication would affect me. Finally, it came to me. Start thinking positive. After all, hope and positive thinking are the strongest medicines of all. I told myself I would not be one of the people who experienced any of the side effects, and I started taking the antibiotics. The infectious disease doctor prescribed two antibiotics to be taken twice daily for a period of two years. I have been taking them for 16 months. Within four months, my hemoglobin vastly improved without having to take Prednisone. I can’t know for sure what the future holds, whether my anemia will return when I stop the antibiotics, but I try to live my life to the fullest and fill every day with joy and laughter.
As I write this, I realize that my near death experience in no way compares to those of you who are struggling every day to overcome a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease or those of you who are on the transplant list waiting for a life-saving organ that can prolong your life. I bow my head to all of you brave people and recognize that the human spirit is strong and hope springs eternal. My thoughts and prayers go out to each of you, and if the words in my story brighten your day in some small way or inspire you to keep fighting and not give up hope, then I will have accomplished my mission in writing this story.
Editor’s note from Bob Aronson. Dawn Anita is my Wife Robin’s cousin. I have known her for about 15 years and she is an amazing woman. Not only is she one of America’s great country singers, her nearly boundless energy has benefited many. She has freely donated her time and talent to many worthwhile causes and is a longtime member of Organ Transplant Initiative and a frequent contributor to Bob’s Newheart Blogs.
All of us in the donation/transplantation community have benefited from her compassion and generosity. In 2013 she wrote, produced, directed and paid all costs for her Nashville, Tennessee recording of “The Gift Of Life.” She then donated the song to our Facebook group Organ Transplant Initiative to use as we see fit to promote organ donation. You can see the video here:
Dawn Anita’s story is inspirational because of her spirit. She just refuses to lose faith and to give in to adversity. As a performer she is the consummate professional. When she hits that very first note, Dawn Anita has captured the audience. I am proud to call her “Cousin” and friend. Thank you Dawn Anita and Jerry, you are wonderful examples of the American Spirit and of my favorite sentiment — “Never Give up.”