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On Aug. 17, Dana Fohl swabs her cheek to become a donor for the organization "Be the Match" in honor of her husband, Steve Fohl, on the one year anniversary of his diagnosis with leukemia. 

Aug. 17, 2021 was a day like no other. A young, healthy man’s life changed for the worst. A family worried and prayed, hoping for the best. After being hospitalized for low hemoglobin numbers, Steve Fohl was diagnosed with leukemia four days later. 

Steve, Eastern Kentucky University alumnus and content creator for EKU Athletics, became ill more frequently in the summer leading up to his diagnosis. 

Steve said that he caught little sicknesses during the summer and it was more than what he considered normal. In August, Steve said he started getting skin infections that could have been Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), but never was officially diagnosed. 

Days before Steve was admitted to the emergency room, he felt a lack of energy. After climbing a flight of stairs, he had to stop to catch his breath, which he said was not normal for him. 

 “I could barely walk to the end of this hallway out to my car … and I would get to my car and be completely out of breath,” Steve said. 

At his doctor’s visit, the doctors were shocked that Steve was even able to walk. He said they told him his hemoglobin levels were low. 

“In a typical adult male your hemoglobin levels are between 14 and 17. Mine were like 3.9,” said Steve. 

Steve, 38, was shocked when he was diagnosed with leukemia.  

“I was hit with a lot of different emotions. It was one of those where I honestly thought that I might wake up from a bad dream, but it just never happened,” said Steve. 

Dana Fohl, Steve's wife, said that Aug. 17, 2021, was the worst day of their lives. 

“You never imagine, 38 years old, two kids and being diagnosed with leukemia,” Dana said. 

From the time that Steve got his blood test results to when he was admitted to St. Joe’s Hospital in Lexington, then transported to University of Kentucky Hospital (UK), there was no time for him to say a proper goodbye to his two young children. 

“I never got to see my kids and sort of explain to them what was going to happen,” said Steve.

Steve spent 50 days in UK hospital, only seeing his children through Facetime. He said during his time at the hospital, he went through all the stages of grief his doctors had told him about.

“I cried a lot. I was mad, I was in disbelief, and I was scared. I was very, very scared,” said Steve. “You don’t expect these things. It’s hard to prepare yourself.” 

Steve said he had to fight to come to terms with his diagnosis for his wife and children. 

Eventually, Steve underwent very intense chemotherapy, which made his hair fall out. 

“My hair fell out. I mean like chunks of my hair were coming out,” said Steve. “I had really nice hair… a big waft of flowing hair, and it all started falling out.”

Steve eventually had one of the nurses shave his head, leaving him bald for the first time. 

“I actually kind of liked it because it’s very low maintenance, being bald,” said Steve. “I think it shocked my wife more than it did me.” 

Throughout chemotherapy, Steve did the best he could to stay positive. He said having his wife by his side and watching classic movies made him laugh and smile enough to keep his mind off the entire thing. 

During the 50-day stay in the hospital, his wife Dana, never left his side. They found a routine and stuck to it, watching TV shows such as Jeopardy and Ted Lasso every night. Steve even did stretches to stay active. 

“The one thing about all of this is I’ve learned how blessed I am and how lucky I am because I had a wife that stayed with me the entire time I was in the hospital,” said Steve.

Throughout the past year, both Steve and his wife continued working remotely. 

Steve said that working in the hospital helped him mentally, gave him a sense of normalcy, and allowed him to keep his mind off things.

“It made me feel productive. It made me feel helpful. Made me feel like I wasn’t a sick person,” said Steve.

Matt Roan, EKU’s athletics director said that when Steve could not be in the office, Corey Rush, the assistant director under Steve, stepped up as a leader. 

“We’ll always be indebted to him as a department for how he stepped up and how he matured and grew and just the quality of work that he was able to put out to support the team,” said Roan.

Dana works with EKU’s University Counsel. During her husband’s stay in the hospital, she continued to work remotely from the hospital. 

“I put in full days of work. I just put them in either bedside at UK or in the UK Markey Cancer Center family workroom, which became a second home,” Dana said.

As both sets of parents were in the hospital, both sets of grandparents helped watch their children. 

Dana said that she is thankful for the support system that she had because both her and her husband's parents had decided to retire in the last year. 

“It was such a blessing that they could come help us,” Dana said. 

Steve and Dana, tried the best they could to shield their children. They never used the word cancer, but instead referred to it as “sick blood.”

“It’s so hard to explain to a 6-year-old and then and even more so to a 3-year-old what cancer is, so we decided as a family to use the word ‘sick blood,’” Dana said.

The type of leukemia that Steve had meant that it could potentially return in the future. 

Steve underwent chemotherapy that led to his remission, which began in October, but the threat of the cancer's potential return stuck in their minds. 

On Mar. 8, Steve received a bone marrow transplant. A donor, through the donation registry “Be the Match,” was the perfect match. 

Steve said there were days around the time of his transplant that he didn’t feel up to working, but most days, he was up to it, and he did work. 

The transplant was an invasive procedure that wiped out his bone marrow, and then a donor’s bone marrow was injected into his system, creating new blood cells, Steve said.

“When people think of a transplant, usually they think of a big surgery where they’re replacing your heart,” said Steve. “This one, it’s very easy. They come in and they had these two big syringes filled with another person’s bone marrow and they just put it into you like a big infusion.” 

Both of Steve’s brothers swabbed their cheeks to be potential donors, but neither were a match. 

Through the organization “Be the Match,” Steve was able to find the perfect donor. He said that during the donor search process, he met people that weren’t able to find a good enough match. 

“The transplant team said they weren’t even sure they’d ever seen a guy come back with as many perfect matches on the registry as he had,” said Dana.

When Steve was released from the hospital, he was quarantined for two months, and could not go into places where other people were present. He said he took the time to walk around the neighborhood. 

Once Steve’s quarantine ended and his hair had grown back, he was able to come back to work in person. He said he feels more normal now and excited to come back to work. 

This semester he said that he is teaching a class and also back in the EKU Athletics office as a content creator. 

Steve has eased back into his position full-time, and with the support of his friends and co-workers, the transition has been easier. 

“They’re my friends, and I knew that they would be supportive of me and they have been, more so than I ever thought they would,” said Steve. 

Although he is back at work, Steve said  there are days he has to miss due to doctors appointments. He said the athletics staff has been supportive and is able to work around his appointment schedules. 

Roan said that Steve was a missing piece of the athletics’ office dynamic.  

“He has a lot of people that care about him, a lot of friendships, meaningful relationships up and down the hallway,” said Roan. “And so when there’s that void, there’s that missing piece and so being able to bring him back and to have that office door open again and him being there, I think it makes us more of a complete team.”

Throughout his battle with leukemia, Steve said he is thankful for the support he received from his family, friends and co-workers. 

“I’ve learned how blessed I am and how lucky I am because I had a wife that stayed with me the entire time I was in the hospital … It’s just funny how such a terrible situation kind of makes you realize how lucky you are,” said Steve. 

Roan said that both Steve and Dana have been a great example to the athetics office on how to handle something with class and grace, and with a ton of strength. 

“Certainly we’ve learned a lot from them, and I hope that they have learned a lot from the people that were supporting them as well,” said Roan. “We’re better with Steve here, and we’re excited to have him back.” 

Dana  is also thankful for the support from the University Counsel’s office, President David McFaddin and the president’s cabinet. 

“I am deeply grateful for the support I had professionally, not just personally, to try and maintain as much normalcy in life as possible despite the circumstances,” said Dana. 

March 2023 will mark one year since Steve Fohl received his bone marrow transplant. He said that after one year, he will be allowed to meet his bone marrow donor. 

On Aug. 17, 2022, one year since Steve received his blood results, Dana swabbed her cheek and became a potential donor through “Be the Match.” 

Dana said that at first she didn’t know if it was the right time to become a donor because her husband still may have needed her. 

“This year, I decided in honor of his one year milestone and his recovery, that I would join ‘Be the Match’ registry to be able to start the process to be a potential bone marrow donor,” said Dana. 

Dana is in the process of starting a “Be the Match” campaign for EKU’s campus. She is in contact with Kentucky’s ‘Be the Match’ registry representative, and is hoping to promote the organization through EKU’s campus. 

Steve said he is also working with student athletes on the Student Athlete Advisory Council to create a bone marrow registry. 

“This is the group that they look for,” said Dana. “College campuses are really where ‘Be the Match’ try to connect, they’ve not had any EKU connection and I think we could really embrace it here if we could get the right kind of people kind of in the same room and all behind the same registry.”

For more information on “Be The Match” visit bethematch.org

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