On the morning of 19 October, 2009, Akheel Soltan’s life changed forever. So did life for his wife, Reem, and their young children, Sophia and Joseph. Until that day, Akheel had been successfully working as a Water Treatment Engineer for 14 years, having lived in Australia since 1992 when he had emigrated from Kuwait with his family as a boy. When his GP told him to go straight to Westmead Emergency, Akheel knew something was seriously wrong. He was later was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
“I went from being a perfectly healthy 35 year-old, with an engineering career at its peak and my own business, to someone trying to sort out the massive vacuum created by a blood cancer diagnosis,” said Akheel.
“It was like I was falling from a cliff while my family looked over – completely helpless.”
In mid-September 2009, Akheel had a sore throat, but was able to recover without seeing a doctor. However, a week later the soreness returned, stronger this time and coupled with a fever.
“With antibiotics I recovered, but a few weeks later my lymph nodes under my armpit, chin and groin area swelled up. I also had pinhead red dots on my legs and arms.
“After a few more tests my worst fear became a reality – I had leukaemia.”
Akheel was admitted to Westmead Hospital for six weeks of chemotherapy. During this time he describes as “heart-breaking” not being able to see his children. No children under 16 were allowed to visit to minimise the infection risk.
For Reem, caring for two young children and a husband with blood cancer has been one of the hardest things in her life.
“That dreadful Tuesday when Akheel was admitted to hospital, I went home alone with no idea what was going to happen tomorrow,” said Reem. “Not only did I have to keep my job, I also had to manage Akheel’s business and look after two young kids who were completely dependent – Joseph was two months old and being breast fed and Sophia was two and a half years-old and couldn’t eat on her own.”
In this time of real need, extended family members “jumped in” to help take care of young Sophia and Joseph when Reem was working.
During week four of his treatment, Akheel developed life-threatening septic shock, requiring admission to intensive care. Thankfully, his white cells (immune system) recovered just in time to fight off the bacteria that was “ravishing freely in my body”.
After adjusting to walking again after spending so many days bed-bound, Akheel remembers being told in week six that he could leave hospital.
In late November 2009, Akheel was told he was in complete remission. It was also the first time the term “bone marrow transplant” was mentioned – and Akheel was booked in for a transplant on 21 March, 2010. During the few months of waiting, he received two more treatments of maintenance chemotherapy to keep the AML in remission.
Akheel was fortunate that his younger sister, Ayah, was a close biological match and could donate her stem cells for the transplant.
“I now live with her blood running in my veins, having completely lost all my original blood as a result of the treatment,” said Akheel.
The physical changes that follow a transplant are something that Akheel deals with by drawing on his sense of humour.
“I always try to fill my life with laughter,” he said. “I once took a call from a life insurance company and told them I had cancer and still wanted to know how much a cover would cost me – just for a laugh.”
“After the transplant, I became partially bald. I weighed 15kg less. During a low blood count period, I fainted, breaking my nose. It healed but it looks different than before. I also wear glasses now and some of my teeth darkened.
“My brother tells me that I look like a gangster, which I have to admit I’m starting to like!”
After the transplant, life for the Soltans slowly started to resemble a new ‘normal’. They embraced the opportunity to enjoy family activities together again, like cooking, watching TV and walking to the park.
Today, Akheel is back working full-time. He is off all medications, with no detectable cancer in his blood for the past three years. He has, however, lacked energy and experienced dryness of the eyes and mouth and skin discoloration as a result of Graft versus Host Disease (GvHD), a condition arising because of the transplant. There have also been internal symptoms of rejection in his liver.
Looking back, Akheel is forever grateful for Australia’s medical system, which enabled him to survive AML and look to the future.
“I knew I was receiving the best care in the world and I’m forever indebted to this country,” he said.
“I recently returned from a visit to the Muslim Holy place of Mecca, where being among the infection risk posed by the massive crowds was a milestone. I want to travel to Morocco, Spain, USA, Canada and France next.
“I’m also finishing off a cooking course and recently became a qualified chef. I don’t want to go back to engineering just yet.”
More Inspiring Stories