« Jack Keller »

by Tom Rademacher, Veteran Grand Rapids Press columnist and long-time Michigan Blood donor

   You might recall a jazzy jingle for a Ford dealership in which the owner was lauded as  “Jack Keller, what a great, great guuuuuu-y!”

 Jack Keller still is, but where Michigan Blood is concerned, it’s Jack Keller the credit union official, not auto magnate.

   “No relation,” says Jack, a senior credit analyst for Lake Michigan Credit Union, and he chuckles to add that, “If I had a nickel for every time I got asked, I’d have my own Ford dealership by now!

   “Unfortunately,” Jack says, “as soon as anyone brings that up, I can tell how old they are if they remember that commercial.”

   Jack’s kind and generous nature belie the war he’s been waging since the spring of 2011, when he noticed himself becoming more tired, and experiencing lower back pain.

   “I was 58 and a little overweight,” he says with a shrug, “and I thought it was just part of the aging process.”

   In April of that year, he visited Michigan Blood – as he’d been doing each month for years – to participate in the apheresis program. That’s where a donor’s blood passes through an apparatus that separates out particular components of the blood before the rest is returned to normal circulation.

   Apheresis is used for the collection of donor blood components such as platelets or plasma, to be used as part of a patient’s treatment for certain medical conditions.

   But that April day, Jack’s iron tested too low, preventing him from participating.

   Neither he nor Michigan Blood was alarmed, and Jack was advised to alter his diet a bit in favor of iron-rich foods, then return in a week or so. He did – two more times, in fact – but was denied for the same reason on both subsequent visits.

   At that point, Jack reasoned that “something’s not right,” so he made arrangements to see his physician. A blood draw revealed grim news: He had cancer.

   Specifically, Jack was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable disease where collections of abnormal plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow, where they interfere with the production of normal blood cells.

   Jack’s illness was compounded by the fact that he’d just been “downsized” from a job he’d held at an area bank. Now, he was facing months of therapies and a pair of stem cell transplants that would further challenge him physically, emotionally and spiritually.

   After an aggressive round of chemotherapy, Jack endured the two transplants, where his own stem cells were harvested – via apheresis -- then treated and re-injected into his system.

   In the days that followed both transplants, he was reduced to a mere shadow in terms of what he had been capable of doing. “An ordeal sometimes just trying to walk to the bathroom,” he remembers. His weight also dropped, from 215 to less than 180.

   Jack was limited not only in what he could do, but where he might circulate publicly. That’s because his immune system was seriously compromised during treatment regimens: “I couldn’t go to a movie or to church or anywhere there might be someone coughing, wheezing. Those germs could really get to you.”

   It’s been a tough two years, but Jack’s faith and attitude – and the help of countless others -- have helped buoy him. “A big part of getting through this thing was faith,” he says. “A whole lot of prayer circles,” he adds, “and I’m talking people I hadn’t seen in 40 years.”

   Jack is especially grateful to Michigan Blood, and in an arguably unusual way, because he points out that his diagnosis might have gone undeterred a dangerously longer period had his low iron count not been discovered when it was.

   His only regret is steeped in generosity; on the April day in 2011 that he’d stopped in to donate, it would have marked 20 gallons in giving.

   And so, he remains one scant pint short of that threshold, and because of his disease, unable to cash in on that personal milestone.

   He focuses on the positives, however – what he can do now. Where he can go. And with whom he still feels blessed to spend time – wife Sheryl and two grown children in Brent and Brittany, to name just three.

   He’s also returning to some of the activities for which he says he was “under house arrest” while recuperating from the transplant, namely running, swimming, golf and softball. This past summer, he enjoyed the latter with his daughter, and this fall, he finished a 5-kilometer run in Allendale, home to his alma mater, Grand Valley State University, from which he graduated with a history degree in 1982.

   He eschewed the life of a teacher to break into banking, and it’s at what then was Old Kent Bank where he was encouraged to give back to the community. Following in his father’s footsteps, he gravitated toward donating blood, and stepped it up when Michigan Blood appealed to him as an apheresis participant.

   The irony isn’t lost on him that he’s been both a donor and a recipient of the technology: “I’ve experienced it from both ends,” says Jack. “The warm fuzzy from giving, and the warm fuzzy from receiving.”

   In December 2012, Jack got the green light to return to work, and cites some benevolent friends at LMCU for helping him land a job there this past August, which he refers to as “a gift.”

   Though Jack can’t participate in donor programs, he was looking for another way to help Michigan Blood.

   So they asked him to share his story.

   And that’s exactly what this great, great guy did.