ROYERSFORD — Kevin Schurr feels like he’s turning a corner.
“I think, finally, I’m on the comeback trail,” the retired Royersford police chief told 21st Century Media this week.
In his battle with multiple myeloma, Schurr is certainly moving forward, but that does not mean any step along the way came easily.
“This was the toughest thing I’ve ever had,” Schurr said, his voice as resolute as it was in a May interview shortly after he announced his retirement to fight his cancer. “In my life, I’ve had a lot of challenges and accomplished a lot of other things, but they were more in my control. They weren’t a giant impact on my family and my work.”
Schurr had to retire from police work, which he’d done since 1979, and had to draw strongly on his wife, Dallas, and stepdaughter, Daryll.
“It’s strange because it feels like I’m in a position to start all over in my life,” Schurr said, describing the chapter of his life before cancer as “closed.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, multiple myeloma is a cancer that affects a person’s blood plasma cells, which are the “type of white blood cell present in your bone marrow” which help fight infection.
Schurr said the myeloma cells can’t produce antibodies to fight infection.
As a result, to survive, Schurr’s doctors determined he had to go through a stem cell transplant.
After doing chemotherapy treatment for much of the summer, Schurr began preparing for the transplant at the end of July and beginning of August. One of the steps to prepare him was implanting a trifusion catheter into his chest.
“It makes it easier for all the upcoming procedures,” Schurr said. “They don’t have to stick you anymore with needles and IVs and all.”
The catheter “is more annoying than anything” because it’s limiting, according to Schurr.
“No sweat, no showering, no wetness, you have to keep bacteria out of it,” he said.
Additionally, the installation of the catheter truly marked the end of Schurr’s ability to keep himself in the shape he’d been in before his diagnosis.
“Leading up to that, I was really trying to exercise as hard as I could to be as strong as I could going into this,” he said.
Schurr received a stronger dose of chemotherapy and injections to stimulate stem cell growth within him.
On Aug. 12, Schurr went into Jeanes Hospital in Philadelphia to collect the stem cells. An out-patient procedure, it was conducted in six-hour durations, pulling blood from his system, pulling new cell growth out, circulating the blood, then putting it back into Schurr’s system.
“It’s almost like a blood transfusion,” Schurr said. “That process is just a long day and it’s tiring. You’re sitting in a chair and once it starts you can’t move for the day.”
Over two days, the process pulled 8.5 million stem cells from Schurr’s system, enough for two transplants, he said.
A week later, Aug. 19, Schurr returned to Jeanes to do the actual transplant.
After two days of “the worst chemotherapy you can imagine,” the stem cell transplant took place.
Blood with the frozen stem cells from a week earlier was thawed out and inserted into a syringe that “for lack of a better word, looks like a turkey baster,” Schurr said.
“They put the blood inside of that and hook it up to your catheter and start to infuse the blood back through your body,” Schurr said, describing an overwhelming blood smell that filled the room during the procedure.
Each syringe took roughly ten minutes to empty and the whole process lasted less than an hour.
“You think it’s going to be some involved process but it’s not,” Schurr said, but added that the blood going in, “felt like a huge pressure on your chest.”
With that finished, Schurr said all there was left to do was “wait for all the after effects to hit you and the procedure to work.”
Although he felt relatively fine for a day or two after the procedure, Schurr said the next week was “my week through hell.”
“You descend downward because the original chemo gets to you and by the third day or fourth day (it) has wiped out your entire immune system,” Schurr said. “Everything starts to happen.”
Among the symptoms Schurr faced were an almost complete loss of appetite, severe nausea, low-grade fevers and relentless problems with other bodily functions.
“You just have to deal with it,” Schurr said. “And that goes on for days and days.”
Doctors monitored Schurr’s neutrophils, a white blood cell count, which he said descended until he became “neutropenic.”
“You then become a real great risk for infection so you’re almost on lock down mode where the door’s shut and visitors can only come in with gloves, a mask and gowns,” Schurr said. “Your food’s all wrapped.”
The isolation was very difficult.
“The whole process keeps descending downward. Everything becomes worse and worse,” Schurr said. “Isolation is a difficult part of this.”
Schurr felt himself getting better as time went on, however.
“All of a sudden, one day I was able to eat,” Schurr said.
Preservatives in the plasma he received affected Schurr’s taste buds, so it took a while, but orange juice first tasted fine, then Coca-Cola, then other foods and drinks followed.
From the time of admission to his eventual release, Schurr was in the hospital for 17 days, leaving last week.
His doctors told him that time span usually lasts from 21 days to a month and only one person got out faster, leaving after 14 days.
“I consider myself lucky I had such a quick response,” Schurr said. “That journey is the difficult part...just trying to plow through that hospital stay is mental as well as physical.”
“It’s a coordinated effort to save your sanity,” he said.
At home, Schurr said he still gets some symptoms including fevers and oftentimes feels very fatigued even just climbing stairs. Still, he feels like he may be on his way to recovery.
Thursday, he was scheduled to have the catheter removed.
“It will be a great feeling to get this off of my chest,” Schurr said. “It’s like an octopus arm hanging off of my chest.”
No major medical procedures are scheduled but Schurr is mostly housebound for 100 days until doctors can give him a “green light” to get back out into the public. Then he’ll likely have a bone marrow biopsy between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“God-willing, knock on wood, that’ll show I’m in remission,” he said. “Then it’ll be a maintenance program with chemo keeping it at bay.”
Schurr is channeling baseball great Pete Rose in his recovery.
“There’s something Pete Rose said that always stuck with me,” he said. “‘First, be aggressive. Second, be more aggressive. Third, never be satisfied.’ I’m just trying to apply it to my situation.”
The cancer-related death of former New Hanover Sgt. Joe Tomaselli, a friend of Schurr’s, was a difficult reminder of the deadly nature of what Schurr has faced.
“He was actually sworn in the same night I was, in the same place,” Schurr said. “I’d known him since then. It’s a sad thing and it’s just scary.”
A lack of control compounds that.
“I just sit here and have some time to myself and think, ‘I just wish there was something I could do to grab control,’” Schurr said. “But there isn’t.”
In sharing his story, Schurr hopes to help others who might be going through what he is, to provide a chance to look past the deaths cancer causes and maybe a glimpse of recovery.
Schurr said the wife of a friend is now going through the same ordeal he has but is about two months behind him in treatment.
“Everything I’ve gone through, she has coming up,” he said. “I spoke the other day with her husband, I said, ‘Here’s what she’s going to go through, this is what it’s like, this is how it’s going to be.’”
A post office box Schurr set up, (P.O. Box 603, Royersford, PA, 19468) enabled him to connect with some of those going through cancer. He said that if a person wanted to talk things through, they could send something there with their contact information.
“I want to give people the hope that there is a way you can beat it and stand strong and be aggressive and do what you have to do,” Schurr said. “That’s the attitude I’m taking.”
Schurr’s aggressive attitude has him eyeing a possible return to his past as a top-flight bodybuilder. He’d been thinking of entering another contest in the 55-and-older bracket when cancer struck.
When he gets cleared, Schurr hopes to pick up a part-time job as a trainer in a local gym and maybe get back to the form he’d been in.
“2014 is my comeback year,” he said.