`It’s like Christmas in August’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 22, 2004

Obici staff throws patient a surprise

birthday and temporary farewell party

By Jason Norman


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Friday started off normally enough for Doug Fitzwater. Early in the morning, he headed to Obici Hospital for his blood product transfusions. Three times a week, the 26-year-old spends between 4 and 13 hours a day received red blood cells and platelets, which aplastic anemia keeps his body from producing.

Fitzwater had some bloodwork done, and realized that the results were taking longer than usual. As he lay in his bed, the nurses assured him that there was nothing wrong, only that the lab was a bit backed up.

Finally, they told him that the results were waiting in the next room. Fitzwater picked himself up, and nurse Christy Lynch helped him toward the door.

Stepping through, Fitzwater was surprised not to see any blood, charts or lab technicians. Instead, he was looking at a group of his friends from the hospital. There were doctors and nurses that had been aiding him for the past three years, and fellow patients that had looked to him for guidance through their own diseases.

It was a surprise party for Fitzwater’s 26th birthday. But it was also something of

happy (and temporary) farewell.

On Sunday, Fitzwater leaves for Duke University’s medical school for a bone marrow transplant from his sister Rebecca that will hopefully mark the end of his suffering. He’ll be spending three months away from his family in Chuckatuck and his friends at Obici, and everyone wanted to let him know what a special affect he’s had.

&uot;We’ve gotten to know him very well, and he’s a strong guy,&uot; said Lynch. &uot;We did this from our heart. We all love Doug, and he’s finally got a treatment plan. We wanted him to be ready, and we hope that (the transplant) is successful.&uot;

The procedure has a 90 percent success rate.

Along with some memorabilia from Fitzwater’s favorite NASCAR driver, Tony Stewart, the staff had collected a notebook, several cards, a signed poster, photo album, a bodypillow, and a multitude of candies and crackers.

&uot;Wow!&uot; Fitzwater said. &uot;I’ve got everything I need right here! It’s like Christmas in August! I don’t think I want to leave now.&uot; He, Lynch and the rest of the visitors shared some chocolate cake and ice cream.

Though he was born with the disease, Fitzwater wasn’t properly diagnosed until near-adulthood. &uot;I was about 16, and I started noticing discoloring in my fingernails and skin, and I was always fatigued,&uot; he said. &uot;I went to about 15 doctors – I’ve been poked and prodded so many times I can’t remember – and no one knew what it was.&uot;

Finally, the diagnosis came through in the mid-1990s. But it wasn’t exactly welcome news. &uot;They told me that they didn’t have treatment, and that I had six months to live,&uot; Fitzwater said. &uot;I didn’t really do much for the next five or six years.&uot; He graduated from Smithfield High in 1996, but the illness forced him to drop out of Old Dominion University.

&uot;This shows how people care about you,&uot; Fitzwater said of the party, tears starting to fall from his eyes. &uot;I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I’m always coming and going, and leaving’s going to be tough, but we’re going to get through this. It’s hard when you have so many questions and no one knows anything, but now we have the answers. We’re not idle, not just standing around – we’re going. Even if everything’s a big ‘What if?’ you just keep going.&uot;

Lynch is already planning his welcome back party. &uot;He’s going to be successful,&uot; she said, &uot;and when he comes walking back through that door, we’ll be throwing him a big Christmas party.&uot;

&uot;It hasn’t beaten me yet,&uot; Fitzwater said, &uot;and it’s not going to beat me now.&uot;