Six years ago, Dr. William L. Henrich was getting some routine blood work done. A renal specialist who serves as president of the UT Health San Antonio, Henrich and his doctor noticed, when the results came back, that his white blood cell count was down, yet there were no other abnormalities.
It took just over a year for Henrich to discover that he had a rare form of blood cancer called myelodysplasia (MDS). Doctors made the diagnosis by taking a sample of his bone marrow. Once known as pre-leukemia, this blood and bone marrow disorder can, in some patients, advance to acute myelogenous leukemia.
The situation was a role reversal for Henrich, who has led UT Health SA since 2009 and built an extensive career in medicine. To fight his cancer, Henrich discovered he would need the help of his son, Dallas attorney John Henrich.
The two will share their journey – through the diagnosis, stem cell transplant, hope, and recovery – at the San Antonio Cancer Council’s “When the Stars Align” fundraising spring luncheon Monday at the Omni Hotel at the Colonnade.
At the time of receiving his diagnosis, Henrich was a healthy man in his 60s who had no symptoms or risk factors for developing the disorder. He took good care of himself, exercised daily, and watched what he ate. He was a non-smoker and a minor social drinker, who now found himself in the role of patient.
“It certainly turns the tables. The biggest benefit to me as a physician is that it has deepened my empathy for any individual that has anything wrong with them,” Henrich said. “I now have an appreciative view of the fear that people have when they are facing something that can’t be predicted in terms of the outcome. You don’t know how it’s going to ultimately come out.”
After receiving the diagnosis, he called people he knew who worked in the field.
“I had known the group who deals in these kind of issues,” said Henrich, “because before I came to San Antonio, I was the chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and I had recruited a number of them to be part of the Department of Medicine and the Cancer Center in Maryland.”
Henrich got three different opinions before deciding on a treatment.
“When this happens and you get a diagnosis, my recommendation is that you get a second opinion. Take that opinion and strategy and let another group weigh in and see what else can be done, because diseases are incredibly complicated, and what you do first can implicate what you are allowed to do second, third, and fourth,” Henrich advised.
The option available to Henrich involved a stem cell transplant, but first he needed to find a donor for the cells. The stem cell treatment has been around for nearly half a century and was pioneered by E. Donnall Thomas, who received the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his work. The treatment is mostly used to treat leukemia, providing a cure when the transplantation works.
“The irony is that he is a Texan,” Henrich said of Thomas. “He grew up outside of Waco, then went to the University of Texas and then went on to Harvard Medical School, becoming an investigator in the field of stem cell transplantation.”
Henrich, also a Texan, grew up in Dallas. His father worked in the non-glamorous side of the movie business, in booking and accounting, and his mother was an opera singer and pianist. From a young age, however, Henrich had wanted to be in a profession where he could be of service.
“It was always part of me and I stayed focused from the time I was very small until time I went to medical school,” he said.
Since then, he has written more than 300 articles and chapters and is the author of the medical textbook on dialysis, Henrich’s Principles and Practice and Dialysis. Now he had to apply his extensive medical acumen to his own case.
“I’m a kidney specialist, but in going through this I’m impressed with the field of oncology and how rapidly it’s moving.”
As someone with a Northern European genetic history, he had a 50 percent chance of finding a match in the National Bone Marrow Registry, which has more than 15 people million registered, but when none turned up, he turned to his children. Both his son and daughter were good matches and both were willing to help, but the transplanting doctors chose his son because of the slight evidence that there is more success when stem cells come from a donor of the same gender.
He selected MD Anderson because the center had the capability to work with the “one haplotype” match, meaning his son’s genetic profile match is 50 percent him and 50 percent his wife.
In June 2012, before undergoing the stem cell transplant, Henrich received a powerful chemotherapeutic agent that eradicated his bone marrow; for Henrich, it was the chemo that was the most challenging, sickening part of the process.
One week later, he received the stem cells from his son. There are specific areas within the body where the bone marrow is most productive; specifically, one is the iliac crest, which can be found by tracing the contour of the hip bone around to the back. Doctors use a special needle to harvest the bone marrow and the requisite amount of stem cells needed. Henrich was told that his son had as many as 40 needle holes on each side of his iliac crest.
“It wasn’t that hard, you just go and they knock you out and you’re sore for a couple of days,” John said. “It was not a tough decision. The hard part is I’m over it in a week and it took him a couple of months.”
After growing up in Dallas, John became a lawyer. He serves as general counsel for Sally Beauty, working with corporate, securities, and employment. “I had thought about going to medical school but science, especially in undergrad, is a little dry,” he said, when asked why he didn’t pursue medicine like his father. “Law is more my style. I love solving problems for the company.” He is the father of three young children.
After getting the transplant from John, Henrich was required to spend 100 days close to the hospital because he was in an unstable situation. Staying in a rented apartment with his wife, Henrich remembers getting hundreds of notes, cards, books, and spiritual tapes.
On days when he was too sick to do anything except drink water and sleep, it was these messages of love and prayer, read to him by his daughter, that gave him a “renewed determination to see it through, to survive and come back.”
Henrich encourages people to write to someone who is sick, because “it lifts people up. It is these expressions of love and prayer and human touch that make the difference.”
Henrich came back to San Antonio on the day before Thanksgiving and returned to his job after an eight-month leave of absence. Now he is focused, along with Ruben Mesa, director of the Mays Cancer Center, the newly named center home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, on building up the expertise and services so no one has to leave their home to be treated.
“We want to make it unnecessary for people to have to leave to go anywhere in the world for the best care. We want to have it here,” Henrich said. “I’m very proud of our National Cancer Institute designated Cancer Center. It really is a jewel for our city, and we intend to build it up even further in the future.”
Monday’s luncheon featuring Henrich and his son will take place at the Omni Hotel at the Colonnade at 11:30 a.m. Monday morning. Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard will moderate the discussion, and Leslie Mouton will serve as the master of ceremony.