In February 2014 Sondra Kunes was feeling a little more fatigued than usual, but wrote it off as being 54 and raising five children ranging from their early teens to early 20s. Several years earlier she had undergone bariatric surgery for weight loss, and had read that some gastric bypass patients suffered from anemia, so she went to her doctor to get checked out.
"Nothing was wrong with my blood work, but my protein was quite low," she recalled. By May, when she put on her sandals on a warm day and noticed that her feet were swollen, she went back. A a 24-hour urine test showed that she was excreting a great deal of protein, so Mrs. Kunes was sent to a nephrologist for a kidney biopsy.
Her results showed that a condition called amyloidosis was causing nephrotic syndrome, reducing her kidneys' ability to filter and hold on to proteins. A resident of Layton, Utah (about an hour north of Salt Lake City), Mrs. Kunes was referred to a oncologist in her home town, but a family member urged her to seek treatment at Huntsman Cancer Institute at University of Utah Health.
"My nephew worked as a phlebotomist at the Huntsman and convinced me that I really had to go there for treatment," Mrs. Kunes said. "He didn't know it at the time, but they had just started an amyloidosis clinic up there."
Mrs. Kunes saw Josephine Abraham, MD, a nephrologist who put her through a battery of tests to make sure she didn't have multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that mimics amyloidosis. The treatment for both conditions is similar – a bone marrow transplant that may require a course of chemotherapy.
Treatment began for Mrs. Kunes with two rounds of targeted chemo. "I went in every Monday for a shot, then took two drugs at home," she recalls. "One of the drugs had instructions that said not to handle the pill with bare hands—I couldn't help but wonder what it was doing to my insides!"
The chemo treatments ran from September to November 2014, and in December she underwent an autologous bone marrow transplant. In this procedure, Mrs. Kunes' bone marrow—where the body's blood cells are developed and stored—was removed, treated and re-implanted. The advantage of this type of procedure is that no matching donor needs to be found and that the body won't reject its own cells.
Mrs. Kunes was in the hospital for three weeks after the transplant to make sure that her immune system was operative and that no complications would arise. Because the procedure left her temporarily unable to fight germs, visitors were strictly limited and each had to be scrubbed, gowned, and gloved. Because Mrs. Kunes' spiritual life was so important to her healing, her team allowed members of her church to come and minister to her during her recovery. "The nursing staff there is wonderful, very loving and caring," Mrs. Kunes said. She appreciated that she was treated like a person rather than a set of symptoms. "People checked in on my mental well-being, and brought me an exercise bike to make sure I would keep moving."
Another warm memory of her time at the Huntsman was the day of her bone marrow transplant. "The nurses brought me a quilt handmade by a volunteer group and a balloon with a birthday card, for my new birthday," she recalls. "It made me cry."
In spite of being ill for so much of 2014, Mrs. Kunes has enjoyed robust health in 2015 and considers herself as good as new.