‘I Wasn’t Supposed to Make It’: Arkansas Man Survives Leukemia Thanks to 38 Transfusions
If you ask him, Craig Koning isn’t supposed to be alive right now.
By the time doctors finally diagnosed a mystery illness that had been plaguing him for more than three months, the Bella Vista, Arkansas, resident was days away from succumbing to acute myeloid leukemia.
As he and his wife sat in a doctor’s office awaiting the results of a bone marrow biopsy, which would confirm the diagnosis, the disease had ravaged Koning’s body to an almost incomprehensible level.
He had lost about 50 pounds in three months, with the cancer seemingly growing stronger by the minute. A doctor later told his wife, Brenda, that they had never seen a person’s condition deteriorate as rapidly as Craig’s did between the date of his biopsy and his follow-up appointment one week later.
When that appointment finally arrived, Craig was so far gone that he could hardly function.
“I really didn’t care what was going to happen to me at that point,” he said. “I felt so bad. I just sat there in the wheelchair. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t breathe. I was OK if I was sitting down, but I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t drink much. Then they told me, ‘You have leukemia and we’re going to send you over to the hospital this evening. You need to start chemo right away or you’re not going to make it.’”
And so began Craig’s long road to recovery, a path that took several more aggressive, sudden turns for the worse before he began to show signs of improvement. He ultimately received blood and platelet transfusions 38 times in a four-month stretch, a major reason he is still able to share his story today.
“If I didn’t have those blood products — and all the prayers that I got from my church and my family all over the country — I wouldn’t be here today,” Craig said. “I wasn’t supposed to make it.”
‘I DON’T KNOW THAT WE’RE GOING TO BE ABLE TO SAVE HIM’
The Konings received the diagnosis on September 17, 2020, a time when hospitals across the country still had strict visitation policies because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Brenda brought him to Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, but was not able to go beyond the registration desk.
At the time he was admitted, staff told Brenda she should expect her husband to be hospitalized for at least 30 days. But she had seen the toll the disease had already taken, especially in the past week.
“He was just slumped over in a wheelchair,” Brenda recalled of the moment when hospital staff brought him back to his room. “He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t hold his head up. He later told me that all he had done that whole day was pray for God to take him because he couldn’t go on like this anymore.”
The next morning, Brenda received four phone calls from the hospital in a span of about 60 minutes.
The first came from a nurse in the intensive care unit, who informed her that Craig had been transferred to the unit overnight because of a dangerous drop in his blood pressure. Thirty minutes later, a doctor called to let her know that her husband was not doing well and may not live past the next three days.
Brenda barely had time to process that before a second doctor called 20 minutes later, letting her know that they were bringing a ventilator into the room. His kidneys were shutting down, so he was being put on dialysis. The ventilator was made available in case Craig stopped being able to breathe on his own.
And then came a fourth call from his oncologist.
“This is not good,” Brenda recalled the doctor as saying. “I don’t know that we’re going to be able to save him. We can start a very aggressive chemo treatment plan and if it works, we can get it to where we can handle it. But honestly, his body is so weak, I’m afraid that giving it to him will kill him. But it’s your decision. You have to decide what to do.”
To Brenda, there was only one decision.
“Give it to him,” she said. “If it takes his life, it takes his life. I don’t want that, but if we don’t give it to him we know he will not survive. This is the only chance that he has. They started him on it that day.”
‘PLEASE DON’T LET THIS BE HOW THIS ENDS’
On each phone call, Brenda asked if there was any chance her husband would be able to have visitors.
With the real possibility of it being a goodbye visit, she finally received permission. But the hospital told her if there were any out-of-area family members who wanted to see him, they needed to arrive soon.
“I just fell on my knees and said ‘God, please don’t let this be how this ends,’” Brenda recalled saying. “’I need him. His family needs him. This can’t be how it ends. There has to be something that we can do to heal him and to use this to glorify you and to help others.’ I just fell on my knees and prayed.”
Brenda called her family in Louisiana, who made plans to drive up that evening, and Craig’s family in Michigan. His father, brother and sister booked flights that would arrive the following morning.
They all prayed with her.
Around that time, Craig received the first of what would be 38 blood transfusions during his treatment.
All of the units of came from volunteers who donated with the Community Blood Center of the Ozarks, the exclusive provider of blood, plasma and platelets to over 40 hospitals throughout the region.
They helped him prepare for – and ultimately make it through – an intensive chemotherapy schedule.
“The chemo kills everything – the good and the bad,” Craig explained. “Somebody else’s red blood cells kept me alive. Somebody else’s platelets kept me alive. I’ll be forever grateful. I wish I could thank each and every one of them personally for saving my life, because I’m not supposed to be here. But by the grace of God and by the grace of the blood products I’m still here.”
‘IT WAS A LIFESAVER’
How much of a difference did the blood products make?
Shortly after Brenda’s family arrived from Louisiana, the hospital called her and let her know that his heart had gone into atrial fibrillation, an irregular rhythm that can have life-threatening consequences.
His kidneys were already failing, now his heart needed to be defibrillated.
The hospital let the family visit immediately, so they went shortly after midnight on September 19. It would still be several hours before Craig’s family arrived in Arkansas. Plans for a funeral were discussed.
Once Craig’s family landed, Brenda took them immediately from the airport to the hospital. But after six to seven hours of additional treatment and blood transfusions, Craig’s condition improved considerably.
“When I would get those transfusions – and it may sound corny – but I felt refreshed,” he said. “I felt like it was helping – and it was helping. I could breathe better. I felt more alive. I was very uncomfortable when I first started getting them. It was really creeping me out that somebody else’s blood was going into me. After four or five transfusions and how much better it made me feel, it was a lifesaver.”
The three days came and went.
“We know without the blood, he couldn’t have made it,” Brenda said.
‘IT WAS ALMOST AN INSTANT LIFT’
Craig was in and out of the ICU for the next 25 days, but was finally able to go home from the hospital in mid-October. However, he was admitted five additional times through January 2021 due to infections and side effects from his chemotherapy. Blood transfusions helped him overcome each setback.
“He would be dragging,” Brenda said. “I would take him there and come back and get him an hour or two later and you could tell he was more alert. He was more in-tune with things that were going on. He had a little bit of his personality back. It was almost an instant lift when he’d get the blood transfusions.”
More than a year since his last transfusion, Craig is feeling much better.
He still occasionally experiences a shortness of breath, but nothing like what he first felt in June 2020. He has made it a point to advocate for blood donations to return the kindness his donors showed him.
“I’ve prayed for those people,” Craig said. “I don’t know their names or faces or anything. God will bless them somehow for blessing me. I hope that I can bless somebody like they’ve blessed me.”
Brenda spent about a year trying to convince her employer to host a blood drive, but found herself buried in red tape. Then the father of one of the company’s vice presidents was diagnosed with leukemia and needed blood transfusions in his treatment. Brenda finally received the green light and the drive collected enough blood to help save the lives of more than 70 people throughout the Ozarks.
Craig came to the drive to personally thank as many of the donors as he possibly could.
“I’m so thankful to each person that took time out to give that blood because it did give him a chance to live,” Brenda said. “It’s made me, my family, our friends and co-workers all more in tune with just how important it is to give blood. You never know when someone in your family is going to need it.”
Donating blood with the Community Blood Center of the Ozarks allows more than 40 local hospitals to continue to provide lifesaving treatment to friends, neighbors and loved ones here in our communities. There is no other organization that supplies blood and blood products to these hospitals, who rely exclusively on CBCO donors to help patients like Craig. What kind of stories will your donation inspire? Click here to find a drive near you.