It should have been the happiest time in Kristin McKinley’s life. In April 2016, she was four months pregnant with her first child. She and her husband, Ryan, had just learned she would be having a girl. But a few days later that happy news was overshadowed by a shocking diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare and devastating disease that, in Kristin’s case, was made even more complicated by her pregnancy.
“Monday was the best day ever,” Kristin, 28 years old at the time, recalls. “We found out we were having a girl. Friday, I was told I had cancer.”
Until that point, there had been no concerns about Kristin’s health.
But when she was sent to a high-risk OB-GYN to check an unrelated condition called bicornuate (heart-shaped) uterus, “He asked me about my energy and do I get out of breath, and I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. Kind of.’ I guess something piqued his interest.”
In fact, the doctor was concerned enough to order a battery of tests. When Kristin received the AML diagnosis a few days later, she was stunned.
“When they first told me that I might have leukemia, I didn’t even know what leukemia was,” she says. “As soon as the doctor left, I Googled it and found out it was cancer. I almost threw up. It was devastating.”
Kristin, a violinist and Ph.D. candidate studying music and education, had already decided she’d leave her doctoral program in Florida so she and Ryan could return home to New York to start their family. Suddenly, their top priority was finding cancer treatment. Within a week of her diagnosis, they would be back in New York.
“I flew home Tuesday,” she recalls, “and I was in Dr. Jurcic’s office Wednesday morning.”
Dr. Joseph G. Jurcic, director of the Hematologic Malignancies Section in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, worked with a multidisciplinary, collaborative team that immediately came together so Kristin could quickly begin treatment.
“Leukemia is a very aggressive disease,” says Dr. Jurcic, a professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “If it’s not treated promptly, people will have severe infections and, without treatment, most people with AML can only live about three to six months — at most.”
Kristin recalls that from the moment she arrived, her team was at the ready, and these relationships just “snowballed.”
“It was so heartwarming,” she says. “Dr. Jurcic explained everything and said, ‘We’re going to save you and we’re going to save your baby.’”