Compassion that Runs Bone Deep

How her husband's bone marrow transplant gave Carol Barnes a heart for others

Carol and Rusty Barnes met when they both served as orientation counselors at Northeast Mississippi Community College, where Carol was a Tiger dancer and Rusty was a football player. Not long after they were introduced, Rusty presented Carol with a dime store ring and asked, "Will you marry me?"

Before long, the pretend proposal became a real one. Following their graduation from the University of Mississippi, Carol and Rusty married, settling into a happy family life that soon included two beautiful daughters. Rusty became a major with the criminal unit of the Mississippi Highway Patrol while Carol established a career as a professor in the kinesiology department at Mississippi College. Life for the college sweethearts seemed nothing short of idyllic.

But in 2006, Rusty began complaining of nausea and fatigue. A visit to the doctor brought a diagnosis of chronic myloid leukemia. The 41-year-old husband and father had cancer.

The Barneses were relieved to learn that chronic myloid leukemia typically responded well to treatment. Rusty was given chemo through a simple pill, and within one month, the cancer was in remission.

"He actually felt a little guilty because it seemed so easy," Carol recalls.

But during a routine follow-up visit in October of 2011, that relief changed to fear. The leukemia had evolved into acute myloid leukemia, a much more serious form of cancer. The couple broke the news to their children, Merrie Claire, then a freshman at the University of Mississippi, and Annelise, a student at Northwest Rankin Middle School.

"Our older daughter is very sensitive and emotional," Carol says. "When Rusty called her at college to tell her, she began to cry. The 13-year-old was very brave. She said, 'Okay, Daddy, we're going to handle this.'"

As recently as 10 years ago, a diagnosis of acute myloid leukemia would have been a death sentence. While there was hope for Rusty Barnes, fighting the cancer this time would take more than a simple pill. The treatment would involve days of intense, intravenous chemotherapy referred to as "red devil chemo." Harsh side effects would include intense pain, nausea, and fatigue, and Rusty would need frequent blood and platelet transfusions. But the chemo was only the beginning; Rusty would also need a bone marrow transplant. When none of their family or friends proved a match, a national search for a compatible donor began.

"I knew I'd have to miss some classes," Carol says. "I was open with my students and my colleagues in explaining why, and I asked them to pray for us. I received so many words of encouragement from my MC family. I felt so blessed to be exposed to Christian young men and women who were so strong in their faith. I had students I didn't even know come to me and say 'God's going to be there for you. He's going to help you through this.' That was pretty powerful."

Carol's colleagues filled in for her on days when she was unable to leave Rusty's side. MC students and members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol stepped up to offer their prayers, support, even the blood from their own bodies, donating gallons of blood and platelets in Rusty Barnes' name. They were joined by complete strangers who read about the Barnes family on Facebook and were inspired to donate. Carol's e-mail inbox was filled with Scriptures and messages of love and encouragement.

While Carol knew the diagnosis was serious, she never once allowed herself to think that her husband might die.

"We knew that God was with us every step of the way," she says. "And we realized very quickly that God was not through with Rusty here on earth."

Rusty Barnes spent most of October and November of 2011 in the hospital receiving chemotherapy, confined to isolation to prevent infection. In December, the Barneses received the news they had been waiting for — a bone marrow match had been found.

Saying "Thank You"

The donor who saved Rusty Barnes' life was a 23-year-old man. The bone marrow donation program requires that a full year pass before the donor and recipient may contact one another, but the Barnes family has already sent the donor letters expressing gratitude for his priceless gift. "My family really wants to meet the donor," Rusty Barnes says. "I have mixed emotions. What do you say to the guy who saved your life? There is no way to thank him, but yes, I definitely want to meet him."

The transplant was scheduled for December 7, 2011. Preparing for the procedure meant taking Rusty Barnes to the brink of death. Intense chemotherapy killed virtually all of his stem cells; the new donor cells would take their place. But with Rusty's body ready, the Barneses received frightening news from the bone marrow registry. The plane transporting the precious, life-saving donor cells — cells with a 48-72 hour window of viability — had been delayed. The chemo had killed Rusty's own cells; failing to perform the transplant immediately would mean almost certain death. After the grueling treatments, the painful waiting, and the miracle of finding a donor, Rusty Barnes' life was now threatened by a weather delay.

"I went on Facebook and called and e-mailed everyone we knew and asked them to pray," Carol says. "Our contact from the registry was giving me text updates and finally, we got one that said the plane had touched down in Jackson. We were going to make it. I took pictures of that wonderful little bag of cells, that second chance at life, and posted them on Facebook. Then I sat and watched those cells move through the tube into my husband's body."

The December 8 transplant was successful. Rusty Barnes went from cancer patient to cancer survivor — and thanks to the anonymous donor, from blood type A+ to AB+. A bone marrow biopsy performed in May 2012 showed no trace of cancer.

Acute myloid leukemia cost Rusty 90 pounds and his dark brown hair grew back dark blond, but the most lasting change the cancer worked in Rusty and Carol was a renewed appreciation for life, each other, and the power of prayer, and for Carol, a heightened sense of compassion for others.

"I would never say I'm glad my husband suffered," Carol says. "But God allows things to happen for a reason. When Rusty was sick, so many people came to us and said, 'You need to let me help you.' I want to reach out and help others now.

"I think this experience has made me a better person and a better teacher," Carol continues. "I always enjoyed teaching, but now I look at circumstances and really feel what my students are going through. You have to have compassion to be a good teacher, to make a difference in someone's life. My daughter came to me once and said, 'My professor doesn't care how I do in his class. He doesn't care about me.' I do care and I want my students to know that."

In talking with them, it's clear that Barnes' students do know.

Seth Lusk is a senior at MC; Carol Barnes is his teacher and advisor. At the same time that Barnes was coping with her husband's illness, Seth's father was diagnosed with the same form of cancer.

"I approached her about my dad because I was missing so much class," Lusk says. "I had never heard of this condition before my dad got sick. When Professor Barnes told me her husband had it, too, it was strange to hear, but it also gave me a sense of relief. I had someone to talk to, someone I already trusted and respected, who really understood."

Barnes was able to provide Lusk with information, advice, and the kind of support that could only come from someone who had experienced cancer first hand. When Barnes asked that a blood drive already planned for the MC campus be held in honor of Seth Lusk's father, the line to donate stretched over 100 feet.

"My dad's condition was really bad for awhile, and I was very worried," Lusk says, his voice breaking as he fights back tears. "Professor Barnes encouraged me to be strong for my dad. She told me to stay positive, that her husband had been through it and my dad would make it through it, too. And during all of this, she was still going through it herself. Sometimes I'd go to her office to talk to her and see these piles of bills or overhear some of her conversations with the doctors. I felt for her, too."

"If I met someone who had just received a cancer diagnosis today, the first thing I would do would be to pray that person has a relationship with Jesus Christ. I can't imagine what we would have done if we didn't have that. My husband suffered greatly, but he always had that hope, that faith, because he knew that God was there, comforting him." — Carol Barnes

Thirty-seven-year-old Lekishi Davis is a single mother of two who suffers from hypertension. Her 11-year-old son has been diagnosed with behavioral disorders and has spent time in treatment facilities; caring for him has made it challenging for Davis to care for herself. Still, Davis enrolled in MC determined to become a nurse.

"When I found out I would actually be able to attend college, I was so excited," Davis says. "I kept telling people 'I'm going to MC, y'all!'"

But in October 2011, midway through her first semester, Davis woke in the middle of the night to find her apartment building in flames. She and her children escaped unharmed, but lost all of their possessions in the fire.

"Losing everything was awful," Davis recalls. "But it was more than that. It took the wind out of my sails. I could not seem to bounce back. It made me question whether I should be there at MC, whether I should even try."

When Carol Barnes learned what had happened, she reached out to Davis.

"Professor Barnes called me to check on me. She bought me Walmart gift cards. She gave me my lessons so I wouldn't get behind in class. She convinced me to enroll in an exercise program and made sure I was taking my medicine. When she found out about my son's condition, she gave me advice about his diet and things that would help him, too," Davis says. "All I could think was, 'Why is this woman doing this? She has things of her own going on. Her husband is sick. She doesn't even know me.'

"I didn't think there were any good people left. I had lost a lot of faith in humanity," Davis continues. "But Professor Barnes and the whole MC campus got together to help me. It was amazing, shocking to me to learn there were people out there who had a heart. That support helped me work my way back. I'm still in school and my children and I are getting back on our feet."

Carol Barnes has taken to heart 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4, which reminds us that God comforts us "so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."

"Professor Barnes made my whole experience at MC very different," Seth Lusk says. "I'm not from Mississippi and at first I didn't feel like I fit in here, but her personal support changed that. She is one of the most genuine, compassionate people I've ever met."

"If I had to describe Carol Barnes in one word, that word would be 'Godsend,'" Davis says. "She has the attributes the Bible uses to describe love — she is that person in First Corinthians 13. Other people can quote it, but she does it. Sometimes God sends you an angel to help you through. That's what Carol Barnes was to me."

Do you feel it in your bones?

Would you like to have the opportunity to save someone's life? Joining the bone marrow donor registry is as simple as filling out a form online. You'll receive a kit in the mail containing swabs you'll use to take a saliva sample from inside your cheek and a return envelope for sending your sample back to the National Marrow Donor Program. To find out more or register as a donor, visit www.marrow.org.