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Despite extra hurdles, Colorado patients are still receiving bone marrow transplants

Posted at 6:51 AM, Aug 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-31 08:51:56-04

DENVER — COVID-19 has increased the workload at Colorado hospitals, but it’s never stopped any of the other lifesaving procedures they do on a daily basis – like bone marrow transplants.

“You know it’s just another journey in life,” Lee Howlett told Denver7. “This door closes and another one opens.”

The last couple of years have been a roller coaster for Howlett and his family. Howlett is a shop supervisor for the Colorado Department of Transportation in Alamosa. About a year and a half ago, he had to have a bone marrow transplant.

“Due to a lot of internal issues, it did not hold,” Howlett said. “It was decided after the numbers went down to an unsafe level that I needed to have another transplant.”

That second transplant was supposed to happen earlier this year.

“About the time I was supposed to go in is when COVID hit and everything was put on hold," he said.

Howlett was working with Dr. Marcello Rotta, a hematologist with the Bone Marrow Transplant Center at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital.

“Our patients are among the most immune-compromised individuals. They are immune compromised because of their disease and they are immune compromised because of the treatment they have to go through,” Dr. Rotta said. “We had to literally use new guidelines to bring patients to transplant.”

At first, those guidelines simply delayed Howlett's transplant. However, once that initial moratorium was lifted, the transplant team encountered another problem.

“We couldn’t transplant when we wanted because the donor, an international donor that I believe was actually from Poland, was halted while he was almost at donation because of COVID-related issues,” Dr. Rotta said.

Howlett did finally get his transplant, but health guidelines at the hospital meant he had to spend weeks recovering without family or friends by his side. Howlett made friends with staff and patients in the hospital by roaming the halls wearing his favorite Tommy Bahama clothing, he said.

“It’s made to not only cheer up the nurses who work in these situations, but also the patients,” Howlett said.

Howlett is now back home in Alamosa with his family. His follow-up visits with Dr. Rotta are done via video calls, the same way his pre-op visits were done after the pandemic started.

“This has been a different way to practice way to medicine,” Dr. Rotta said. “This aspect will probably continue to be there for many months to come.”

As for Howlett, he just wants everyone to know he’s doing much better this time around.

“I’m getting things done and I’m getting my strength back," he said.