Our daughter is ten. She takes an empty plastic licorice tub, cuts a slit in the top and puts a sticker on it with a picture of Africa. It is a piggy bank for the change that she would save to help us make the African safari we were always talking about a reality.
Kids are expensive and take a long time to raise. Our only child is now 23, done with college, but in law school. We never stopped talking about our African safari, looking at pictures, and reading articles about it for all these years. We are reading the Los Angeles Time Travel section which has an article about safaris and we see Rothschild Safaris in the little information box as their recommended travel agent. We save the article.
Our daughter is 25 and a lawyer. We decide we can finally go on our safari. We call Leora Rothschild who plans an amazing trip for us the following year. We spend winter weekends looking up all of the camps she selected for us on the Internet, reading the Rothschild Safaris website, looking at the pictures, and reading reviews about them. We start buying safari clothes and gear. We set up a staging area in our daughter’s old bedroom where we can spread everything out. We tell everyone about our upcoming safari, we can hardly contain our excitement.
I am 47 years old. We are scheduled to leave for our safari in a few days. Everything is ready. However, I had an infected tooth which I had removed, but the infection will still not heal despite taking antibiotics for months. After visiting a myriad of doctors, on the morning of April 25, 2014, I am diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The doctor says I have to go into the hospital for at least a month. The first reply I make is to say, “We are getting on a plane to Africa on Tuesday. I will get the treatment when we come back.” The doctor responds, “If you get on that plane, don’t bother coming back. It will be too late.”
The leukemia is so advanced, 95% of my bone marrow is made up of cancerous cells. I am given six months to live without a bone marrow transplant. I have no siblings who could donate and parent or child donations do not work. A worldwide search for a donor is undertaken.
I endure the first round of a week of 24-hour-a-day aggressive chemotherapy and stay in the hospital for 44 days straight. I think I can’t take it. I am crying when I call the travel insurance company from my hospital room. I can’t tell Leora, my husband has to tell her. Leora sends me a big beautiful coffee table book with pictures from safaris, but I can’t look at it. My heart is broken.
I get out of the hospital for one week to take a break before the next round of chemotherapy. During the next round of chemotherapy, I am so sick and hopeless, at one point, I say to the doctor, “Just tell me if I am going to die so I can leave this hospital and go to Africa. I would rather die there than here.”
A donor is found in Europe. I get out of the hospital for another week break before the third round of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. I rally and say, “I am not dying. I have too many things to do in my life and Africa is #1 on the list.”
The new cells are flown to the United States from Germany. A third round of chemotherapy, and then the transplant which goes well. However, a few days after the transplant, I get sepsis, an infection. All my organs shut down and the doctors induce a coma.
Everyone thinks I am going to die. The hospital wants to take me off of life support. My husband won’t let them.
I wake up from the coma after two weeks. I can’t lift my arms, I can’t feed myself, I can’t move at all. I am transferred to a rehabilitation unit of the hospital where I work harder than ever before to be able to feed myself, brush my teeth, dress myself, and learn how to walk again. All told, I am in the hospital for 128 days.
I am discharged on November 13, 2014. Still on a myriad of drugs, I can barely walk. I come home and see our safari stuff still spread out in our daughter’s old bedroom and cry my heart out.
I have to have counseling as part of my recovery. I tell the therapist that the loss of the safari was breaking my heart. So part of my therapy is to plan our safari again. So I do and Leora helps again.
The only way to tell if you have leukemia is to have a bone marrow biopsy. I had endured several of these and on September 25, 2015, a year and five months after I was diagnosed, I have a bone marrow biopsy to see if I am cured.
My husband, 54 years old, had been diagnosed with myelodysplasia (MDS) several years earlier which is a low white blood cell count. The doctors had just been “watching” this for several years and told us it may be the result of a vitamin deficiency and could result in anemia or could turn out just to be exactly what it was, a low white blood cell count, just normal for him like some people have low blood sugar or low blood pressure. But they now wanted him to have a bone marrow biopsy just to be cautious. On September 28, 2015, three days after mine, my husband has a bone marrow biopsy.
We receive the results that I am completely cured. I am 100% cancer free. We are overjoyed. We can get back to our lives now. We are so happy and all the arrangements have been made for our second planned safari and paid for next June. We will even be there on our wedding anniversary. Elation.
My husband is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The day after I am declared cured of leukemia. The very next day. We don’t want to believe this is true, but it is exactly true. His MDS turned into leukemia, the exact same disease I had. We do not even get one whole day without it.
My husband is admitted to the hospital for his first round of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant a year to the day I was discharged from the hospital. He went into the hospital on the same day as I was discharged the prior year. The same day. The same disease. The same scenario. The safari has to be canceled again. I dread telling Leora. I think the travel insurance company is not going to believe this happened twice. I am overwhelmed by the shock, the disbelief, the devastation of this ironic tragedy.
My husband has a bone marrow transplant after enduring two rounds of chemotherapy. His brother is his donor. He doesn’t have complications like I did, thank goodness, but it takes over a year to recover.
We start talking about our safari again with a bit of trepidation. We still love looking at the pictures and reading the stories. However, we almost don’t want to try again. It had been so traumatic to make all the plans then have to cancel and be so disappointed twice. We call Leora again who says she is thrilled and going to “roll out the red carpet for us.” Leora plans a third safari and the most amazing one yet. We will go in June 2018 for our 28th wedding anniversary. We already have everything we need, but at the date approaches, I begin to worry that something will happen again to cause us to have to cancel our trip. I even start to think that planning the safari again will cause something to happen. There are only three of us in our immediate family and I actually think that planning the trip again will cause our daughter to get cancer.
We get on the plane at Los Angeles International Airport heading to London, then Johannesburg, then Zambia. And nothing bad has happened to anyone. We take off and I finally relax, thinking we finally made it. After both of us surviving the same deadly disease literally within days of each other, we were finally on our way to our dream trip. I could hardly believe it. We watched the sunset over the south of France while drinking champagne, then went to sleep, and woke up to see the sunrise over South Africa. It was like being in a dream after having been in a nightmare for years. We hadn’t even arrived and were incredulous that we were finally actually on our way to Africa.
June 13 through June 29
We have the time of our lives on safari in Zambia. It is better than we had ever dreamed during all those years. For over 20 years, we dreamt of Africa. It had been built up so much in our minds for so long, yet it still exceeds our expectations on every level; the animals, the people, the food, the accommodations, and the beautiful country. It even smells good there due to the wild jasmine. It is the best trip we had ever taken. We are so happy and amazed and awestruck that we are really there.
I had hoped to see one lion. Well, we see a pride of 13 lions all together including six cubs playing on two separate occasions right up close to our vehicle and then a huge male lion at night and then another group of five sub-adult males all incredibly close. We even see a group of four lionesses eating a male greater kudu they had just killed! The first night we arrive, we track a leopard on our ride into the first camp. We see so many different animals, even ones I didn’t know existed. We even see animals in big groups, like giant herds of zebras and five giraffes all lined up eating leaves. Also baby animals, like baby zebras and warthogs and lion cubs and elephants and hyenas and giraffes. It is like being in the Garden of Eden. We take almost 2,000 pictures. We really don’t want to leave. We had just sold our house in the states, so I keep asking the camp managers if we could wash dishes or do the laundry and stay there in exchange.
We don’t tell anyone we meet on our Safari of the long journey it took us to finally get there, 2014, 2016, and then to finally make it in 2018. But when we arrive back at Chongwe River Camp on our last night on Safari to see a beautifully laid private dinner table with a note for us from Leora and champagne chilling in a bucket, I break down and tell Flossie, our jolly camp manager, Ronald, our incredible guide, and Michael, our caring butler, our story and how much this trip meant to us after all we had been through. I am crying with happiness.
Thank you so much, Leora and team, at Rothschild Safaris for making our dream come true. I hope you know how much this meant to us, it has changed our lives.
Third time’s the charm!