By Judi Markowitz
Every year, a growing number of people are diagnosed with some form of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there were approximately 1.9 million new cancer cases diagnosed last year. Unfortunately, the estimated number of deaths was more than 600,000. Cancer does not discriminate — young, old, newly married, recently retired, cancer does not care.
Bobby Graff, my husband Jeffrey’s childhood friend, was five days away from embarking on his retirement dream — a newly purchased house in Florida, warm weather for the winter season, fishing, relaxing with his wife Judy, and, of course, his favorite pastime, golf. But all of that came to a screeching halt after a yearly physical with his internist. At the time, everything appeared to go well with the visit, until it didn’t.
While at the doctor’s office, a routine blood profile was taken. Shortly after the appointment, Bobby received a phone call from his internist. He was told there was something questionable about his bloodwork and wanted Bobby to see a specialist. An hour later, Bobby had an appointment with an oncologist scheduled for the very next day. The new doctor delivered the bad news. Bobby had leukemia. It was 2016.
Bobby’s initial reaction was disbelief. “I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck. My mind was swirling with so many thoughts, I couldn’t keep them straight. I was stunned. I could not fathom that I had cancer because I felt fine. In just 90 minutes, I met with the specialist, more bloodwork was studied, and then the sentence was handed down. My life took a horrible turn.” Bobby was told he had AML — acute myeloid leukemia — the worst type.
Within a week, Bobby was admitted to the hospital for what would turn out to be three and a half months of chemotherapy treatments. The medications were brutal. Chemotherapy took its toll on Bobby mentally as well as physically. The chemo racked his body–muscle loss, weight loss, hair loss. Still, Bobby knew he couldn’t give up. The strain was unbearable. He felt like he was caught in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Then, after all of the medications were exhausted, Bobby’s life depended on locating a bone marrow donor for a transplant. He was released from the hospital and went home to wait for that all-important phone call. Bobby was placed on a donor list called “Be the Match,” a worldwide organization. A coordinator at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan, orchestrated the process.
It begins with donors giving blood. After an initial analysis, the bloodwork is then placed in a system for a potential match. These donors contribute to saving lives out of the generosity of their hearts–they remain anonymous. There are 10 points, or markers, for a match – even eight points will provide the desired combination. It took nearly four months to locate a match. It was from a 36-year-old man. Bobby’s journey was about to begin — it was 2017.
Before the bone marrow transplant, Bobby had to endure full body radiation–head to toe–on both sides of his body. He told the technician “I like it medium rare, not well done.” His humor was intact, and it kept him moving forward. Bobby was only given a 30 percent chance to survive.
Bobby’s close circle of friends and family, his passion for sports, and above all, his wife, paved the way to his recovery. While enduring chemotherapy, Bobby commented that the isolation was numbing. Only his wife and the medical staff were allowed in his room. Rabbis checked in with him daily, prayers were sent out on his behalf from all religious denominations and my own son, Todd, while living in Jerusalem, went to the Wailing Wall to pray for Bobby’s recovery.
Cards and phone calls were in ample supply. When my husband sent a card of encouragement, he included a blast from the past: Bobby’s personal Red Wings hockey card tucked snugly inside. He knew Bobby would garner strength from it, as well as the positive thoughts Jeffrey was sending along.
Bobby’s love for sports began as a child. Growing up in Oak Park, Mich., he played hockey, baseball, joined a bowling league and golfed. The relationships that grew out of these team sports still linger today. Even the lower level of his house is a tribute to the athletes he admires. The walls are adorned with memorabilia and photographs of legends such as Gordie Howe, Hank Greenberg, Barry Sanders, Al Kaline and Joe Namath. Many of these photos are even signed by the athletes. Bobby had a Man Cave before the term became popular in American culture.
An important moment in Bobby’s psychological recovery was when his wife brought the magic ticket to his room — a Red Wings jersey. This was no ordinary hockey jersey. Bobby had participated in the Red Wings Fantasy Camp in 1986 and skated along with Gordie Howe — one of the greats. Bobby said that it was a glowing moment. The hockey stick Bobby used at the camp was signed by this legend of the ice. Having the jersey hang in his hospital room gave Bobby inspiration and the promise of memories yet to be made.
A nurse who attended to Bobby regularly, and who was one of his favorites, picked up on the inspiration that emanated from the jersey. The fight was tough, and the nurse would leave short notes of support on the board in his room to help Bobby through each procedure. Phrases like “Keep your skates sharp” and “You have another shift, so skate hard” kept Bobby grounded and hopeful.
Bobby came through the transplant in April 2017 with immense gratitude, and for a little more than a year was on top of the world. Allowing himself to live in the moment, Bobby started to see friends, attended his 50-year high school reunion, and spent treasured moments with his wife. Then the bottom fell out in July 2018 when Bobby started to feel weak and then a lump developed in his jaw.
Fear gripped Bobby so tightly he felt like he was in a vice. He could not believe the demon cancer was preying on him once again. Thinking about another round and pulling through once again occupied his mind, and the weight was excruciating. Bobby was diagnosed with leukemia for a second time in August 2018. This time he was given a 10 per cent chance to survive.
A repeat performance was quickly on its way: six months on a chemo pill, placement on the donor list, and six and a half months spent between the hospital and a rehabilitation facility. The experience was frightening and agonizing. But finally, some good news was presented to Bobby — another donor was found.
Bobby’s friends and family kept up their vigil of hope and even sports legends were uplifting. Bobby’s brother, Paul, had a client who was a Hall of Fame basketball player–Elgin Baylor. He had played for the L.A. Lakers from 1958 through the 1970s. After hearing about Bobby’s plight, Baylor sent a signed basketball jersey with get well wishes inscribed on his number. Baylor used Bobby’s nickname — Bibby. It was bestowed upon him by my husband Jeffrey when they were in their early 20s. Bobby kept the jersey close.
Finally, Bobby made it home in October of 2019. He was in a wheelchair–too weak to walk, care for himself or even eat solid food. Bobby used a feeding tube for 18 months. Physical and occupational therapy became his mainstay and pushing himself mentally was a test. Once again, his brother flew in from California to motivate and care for Bobby.
After months of rehabilitation, Bobby was able to use a walker and eventually to ambulate by himself. Being able to go outside, sit down and hear the sound of the wind made Bobby reflect on his newfound motto “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning to dance in the rain.”
Unfortunately, Bobby could not escape the side effects of the medications used in the transplants. By May 2021, his kidneys were severely affected. When inquiring about a kidney transplant, the doctors pulled no punches. They laid the cards on the table to give Bobby a clear view of his options, and it wasn’t pretty. In order to receive a kidney, Bobby would have to go through intensive radiation once again. Point blank, he was told he wouldn’t make it through this phase.
Bobby’s options were now limited to dialysis three times a week. He viewed dialysis as his job and working hard to get stronger was the primary goal. Bobby’s approach–“it’s like getting ready for a big game, only this was the game of life.”
Bobby is truly The Comeback Kid. With love, support, faith, and friendship as motivating forces, Bobby kept moving forward through his darkest days. In his mind, Bobby would replay the inspirational ESPY speech in 1993. delivered by basketball player, coach and broadcaster Jim Valvano, who had terminal cancer. Bobby found strength in Valvano’s motto “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Bobby also followed Valvano’s recipe for each day — laugh, think, and be moved to tears, whether for joy or sorrow.
It’s 2023 and Bobby has nothing but gratitude and a true appreciation for the years he has been given. When the bleak statistics for survival of a second bone marrow transplant were reported, Bobby opted to think positively, yet realistically. His friendships are stronger than ever, and he enjoys daily conversations with his Oak Park crew. Bobby has learned that the small things in life are really the best things. He stays focused on the here and now. With his wife by his side, he is enjoying winters in Florida, listening to the sounds of the ocean, the birds chirping and watching the sun rise.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.