The same year the Bamberg County Hospital closed and was replaced by an urgent care center, Gwendolyn Sellers of Denmark was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and vigorously attacks the blood.
With a nearly 35-minute drive to the nearest hospital — the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, Sellers had few options if she suddenly became critically ill and needed emergent care.
Her son, Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Denmark Democrat running for lieutenant governor, hopes to change that. He wants to bring state-of-the-art hospitals to Bamberg County and other rural areas of the state by allowing them to operate under a reformed Certificate of Need program.
He said it’s a balancing act to run his campaign, wrap up his term in the House, manage his career with Strom Law Firm, prepare for his upcoming nuptials and deal with his mother’s serious illness.
The attorney said his mother and his father, Voorhees College President Dr. Cleveland L. Sellers, instilled in him “an insatiable desire to learn as much as I can, but even more importantly, in all things that I do, be a servant.”
Coping with everything gets tough emotionally and physically sometimes, Rep. Sellers said.
He said the more his mother fights, “the more I want to fight.”
“Right now, my heart is in Georgia with her,” he said.
Leukemia is unique in that unlike other types of cancers, it does not start in the organs. According to the American Cancer Foundation, leukemia cells with CML tend to build up in the body over time, but many people usually don’t exhibit symptoms for a few years.
Gwendolyn Sellers said her hematology oncologist believes the disease was dormant in her body about two years prior to her diagnosis in 2012.
After receiving what some might consider a death sentence, Sellers said she looked her doctor squarely in the eye and asked, “OK, what are we going to do next?”
“He laughed and said, ‘Well, that’s a refreshing response. Normally, I have to get the nurses in here.’” Sellers quipped.
After exhausting several FDA-approved oral cancer treatment drugs like Gleevec and Tasigna and rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission for a number of months only to return, she said.
She said the candor of her oncologist, Dr. Donald Townsend, when he told her, “I don’t know what to do next,” gave her encouragement that they were on the right track, even if it didn’t appear that way.
“That took a lot for him to say that,” Sellers said. They agreed the only viable option would be to have a bone marrow transplant, she said.
Bone marrow transplants have been used successfully to treat diseases such as leukemias, lymphomas, aplastic anemia, immune deficiency disorders and some solid tumor cancers since 1968.
A person needing a bone marrow transplant must receive marrow from someone whose tissue type is close to their own. Because tissue types are inherited, similar to hair or eye color, it is more likely the recipient will find a suitable donor in a sibling.
This, however, happens only 25 to 30 percent of the time and even less in the African-American population.
Compounding this, African-Americans only make up about 8 percent of the national donor registry.
Fortunately, Sellers’ younger brother, George Keith Williamson, was a 100 percent match.
She underwent a successful bone marrow transplant on Sept. 23.
“My brother said he doesn’t owe me any more birthday or Christmas gifts … ever,” she said.
Sellers said her rare medical condition was a “second chance at living it up.”
Her new home for the next three months will be the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Georgia as she receives treatment six hours a day at an outpatient clinic.
Despite the need for three whole-blood transfusions and a platelet transfusion, Sellers is optimistic about her prognosis.
The post-transplant setbacks are necessary, “because it’s a stepping stone to the other side of this. If you don’t have an attitude that ‘I’m going to go through this no matter how I feel or how good or bad the day is,’ I really don’t understand why a person would seek treatment,” Sellers said.
For six months after she returns to South Carolina, she cannot be around people.
“But that’s all right. I have lots of books to read,” she said, laughing.
God’s promises are very well outlined in the Bible, she added.
“As long as you stand on those promises, which is a testament of faith, I think that’s it,” Sellers said.
She said she’s grateful she can seek out the best medical care and decide whether to go to Duke or Johns Hopkins, “but that’s not a reality for most people.”
Not to have a hospital in a community is thoughtlessness on the part of those who are administrators and leaders within that community, Sellers said.
“There are still people in rural areas that ride bicycles or lawn mowers to go to the grocery store,” she said. “So how are they supposed to get to Aiken, Augusta or even Orangeburg to get to a hospital? It’s unconscionable, and it’s incumbent upon those of us that can do it to make sure that we do better for our fellow citizens.”
Sellers said she has to remain strong even on her darkest days because she has “three adult kids, and I want to know what’s in store for them.”
Her other two children are Dr. Nosizwe A. Sellers, M.D. and the Rev. Cleveland L. Sellers III.
“I have grandkids and I have to dance at their weddings,” she said. “There are things to do that I haven’t finished, and I feel that my life has a purpose and I have to fulfill that purpose.”
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