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DL woman hit hard by leukemia

Mary MacDougall, left, has a new chance at life after a bone marrow/stem cell transplant from her sister, Darlene. Submitted Photo1 / 2
A big reason to fight for life, Mary McDougall's granddaughters, Marin (left) Evan and Peyton have been keeping her room decorated with artwork as she heals from her bone marrow/stem cell transplant in Rochester. Submitted Photo2 / 2

When a mother raises her three daughters to each believe she is their best friend, most would agree, she's certainly done something right.

Such is the case for Detroit Lakes woman Mary McDougall.

"But she's not just my best friend -- she's the person I look up to," said Jessica Splonskowski, who is the middle sister, in between younger sister Ashley McDougall and older sister Kelly Westrum.

Not only did the three sisters grow up close to each other and their mother, Mary, but also the man in their lives -- their father, Bob McDougall.

"I'm a little out-numbered," he laughed, "but I suppose that also means I get doted on a little bit, too."

Having a close, loving family was just the way it was for the Floyd Lake family, until cancer made it very clear just how precious their gift was.

"You take things for granted," said Bob, who talks about the days when his wife started feeling sick.

"She just hadn't been feeling well on and off last winter," he said, adding that they all just sort of figured it was the flu bug.

But on March 2, the daily chat Jessica would have with her mother turned scary.

"All she said was, 'I need help,'" said Jessica, who says they immediately took Mary to the clinic in Detroit Lakes, but her serious condition led to a transport to Fargo.

Her blood count was so low doctors had to give her a blood transfusion right then and there, but it got scarier for the family.

Mary had a heart attack in the middle of the night, and although CPR saved her life, she was put on a ventilator and her family was put into shock.

"That was very, very scary," said Bob, "One minute you're living your normal life and then the next minute everything changes ... forever."

Mary pulled through the initial medical emergency only to be told she had MDS -- a sort of "pre-leukemia."

The then 60-year-old began treatment for the disease, but soon found out she actually had full-blown acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML.

At the Roger Maris Cancer Center, they gave Mary her first round of chemotherapy.

"It didn't work at all," said Bob, who says the second round sent his wife into a coma.

With no immune system, Mary contracted acute respiratory distress syndrome, which essentially shut her lungs down.

Sedated, Mary was again set back, but with the support of her family, would get right back up to fight. "When she came out she had to learn how to swallow and walk and everything again," said Bob.

Mary's aggressive form of AML was going to need a more formative opponent if she was going to make it. Family would prove to be it again.

All of Mary's siblings were tested for a possible match, as her hopes would lie with a bone marrow/stem cell transplant.

Her sister, Darlene, was a 10 out of 10 match, and on Oct. 4, Mary celebrated her new birthday in Rochester with a brand new set of stem cells.

Since then, she and Bob remain in Rochester so that Mary can continue to receive outpatient care.

They're staying at a place Bob now calls "their home away from home" - The Gift of Life Transplant House.

"Everybody is in the same boat here," said Bob, adding that there are no TVs because the idea behind the huge, renovated Victorian-style house is that everybody staying there socializes and hopefully helps each other get through their organ transfers.

Patients wear masks and the house is kept impeccably clean. Although residents pay by night, it is far less expensive than a hotel would be, making the Gift of Life Transplant House a financial lifesaver for those who Bob says are "giving the gift that God gave them."

"So Mary has the room decorated with a whole bunch of artwork from the granddaughters," said Bob, adding that although his wife's blood count continues to slowly go up through some fluctuation, she does remain physically weak with very little appetite.

But the McDougall's have embraced the idea of taking things "day by day," and feel confident that Mary and Bob will be home by January when she is 101 days post-transplant.

But there are no big plans in the works; what they are looking forward to is just a nice, normal day at home with the family's new appreciation for life and each other.

"We were close before, but this has definitely brought us even closer," said Kelly, who calls her mom "determined and strong."

"She's a strong spirited woman -- she always has been," said Bob, "I think when you go through something like this, you're stronger than you think.  You figure out a way to get stronger if you're going to fight the battle."

And Bob has been there by Mary's side fighting the battle alongside her.

"He's stood by her through this amazingly," said Jessica, "They say 'love in sickness and in health,' and he definitely has."

And although neither of the McDougalls was retired before this, they are now.

After over 25 years at the Eagles in Detroit Lakes, Mary is going into a much-deserved retirement, as is Bob after teaching first at the technical college in Detroit Lakes, then as a para professional in the special education department of the high school. Now, it's time to sit back, heal, and enjoy.

"I suppose she'll want to have sleepovers with the girls," said Bob, referring to their granddaughters, Evan, Marin and Peyton.

"When mom was home this summer, we were sitting at the table and the grandkids were there, and she said 'this is why I'm doing this,'" said Jessica, breaking down in tears at her mother's words. "So I can see them graduate high school and get married and to maybe see them have babies of their own.'"

"We'll go back to normal, but it's still changed for good," said Bob, "Before this, we probably took things for granted, but now we appreciate the things we have more ... the grandkids, the family ... life."

To get updates on Mary's progress, check out her page at Search for MaryMcDougall -- all one word.