DEEP HEAT URBAN ATHLETE: Luke Parker
He describes himself as an ‘average Joe’. But Luke Parker is anything but!
As the class of 2020 geared up for their long-awaited matric year, Luke was diagnosed with Fanconi Anemia, a rare and very serious blood disorder and found himself in hospital, alone and isolated for many months … fighting for his life!
Despite his chances of survival slim, and in the midst of painful and traumatic treatments, Luke refused to give up. He drew on his older brother’s mantra that, ‘you are NEVER alone’, and his own fierce inner determination to ‘keep going’ no matter what.
Cape Town born and bred, Luke grew up with a love of sport and family, and a dream to travel the world. In December 2019, Luke started experiencing headaches. Believing it was possibly due to over training, or low iron, what should have been an uneventful trip to the doctor and a blood test, changed both Luke and his family’s life overnight.
Immediately admitted to hospital for more blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy, Luke was initially diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia (a rare condition that sees the body stop producing enough new blood cells as a result of bone marrow damage). However, the final diagnosis was Fanconi Anemia – a rare and very serious blood disorder that prevents one’s bone marrow from making enough new blood cells for your body to function normally. It can also cause your bone marrow, the sponge-like tissue inside your bones, to generate abnormal blood cells and ultimately result in bone marrow failure.
“It was a confusing time,” says Luke. “I was a pretty healthy person and the symptoms and side effects of Fanconi Anemia did not correspond to how I looked or felt.” Luke was placed in a small room that he was not allowed to leave. “At first, I told myself that I’ll soon be going home to carry on with my life. How very wrong I was!”
The next few weeks saw Luke’s body being prepared for a bone marrow transplant. Part of this involved a picc line (a thin, soft, long catheter (tube) that is inserted into a vein in your child’s arm, leg or neck). “It was one of the most uncomfortable feelings I have ever experienced. I would have dreams of the specific moment when I felt them cutting my arm open to stick the metal line through my vein, and then the plastic tube. And I would worry, that if I turned in my sleep, the picc line would come out and I would bleed to death.”
Eventually Luke trained his body and mind to sleep in one position. However, on top of that, he started experiencing severe reactions to the medication. “The fevers were so extreme that I would go from feeling as cold as if I lived in Antarctic to so very hot that it felt as if I was living on the sun.” Luke’s only available coping mechanism – to sleep, in the hope that time would pass quicker.
The next few weeks saw Luke go through no fewer than 12 sessions of chemotherapy and three of radiation. “My body’s reaction to the chemotherapy was probably the hardest,” remembers Luke. “I saw my body change and there were so many nights when the nausea and vomiting was debilitating.” Radiation was also extremely challenging, forcing Luke to sit completely still in one position for 45 minutes, failure of which would result in the radiation session having to start again.
“It was a difficult time and I hated all of it but, I convinced myself that if I could just get through, I would get better. And my support team was amazing! There were so many people thinking of me and praying for me. I was only allowed to see my parents but all three of my brothers would spend time with me, sitting outside the window of my room in the bone marrow transplant unit. It really helped me believe that I ‘was not alone’ and that I would get through this! I had been through too much to just give up! No matter what was thrown at me, I was determined that I would survive.”
At the end of March, Luke was told that the first bone marrow transplant had failed and that he needed to start the process again, from scratch – all the chemotherapy and all the radiation. In addition, on top of his body being severely depleted from the first round of treatments, he had also picked up additional infections. In April Luke, together with his medical team, began again.
Two bone marrow transplants later, and Luke was finally able to heal and return to some sense of normality. “I now share the same DNA with my youngest brother, Zack – my second donor and one of the biggest heroes in my story!”
Luke was discharged from hospital on the 28th April 2020 (his 19th birthday).
But Luke’s story is about so much more than the enormous medical mountain he has climbed. It is also a story of enormous courage and determination, humility and that of a beautiful soul. Having been offered ‘a dream’ by the Reach for a Dream Foundation, Luke declined on the basis that he felt there were other children (perhaps less fortunate than him) who should rather be given the opportunity. Instead, he offered to be a confidant and support system to other teenagers who may be going through equally difficult experiences.
And, despite his challenging year, Luke was determined to matriculate. After being discharged from hospital and amid managing his health, Luke worked through the school holidays and would often put in late nights and very early mornings to catch up and get ready for his final exams. Having been given the option to split his matric year, or even write his exams in 2021, Luke was determined to write matric and to finish the year together with his friends. Not only did Luke succeed in passing, but he did so with a Bachelor Pass.
Just over a year since his hospital admission, Luke is living his best life and looks forward to starting open water yachting courses soon. “Travelling the world has always been such a big dream, and I intend to accomplish it.” The last few months have also seen Luke slowly starting to get involved in sport and beginning to live a more active life again.
“I have a deep appreciation for everything in life, now more than ever! Being isolated inside a room for four months will truly teach you what’s important. I don’t think I would have it any other way though, as I now believe in making the absolute best of every single day!”
“This is my story, and I hope that I can give others a bit of inspiration to ‘live their life to the fullest’”.
Keep Going Luke!