The tipster, it turned out, was a dead end—just a well-meaning citizen with the wrong information. Drew was ready to pack it in when the local TV station contacted a Lowe’s store, spurring the retailer to check its surveillance videos. With the help of Drew’s records, they pinpointed a purchase to a specific time and date, and the TV station put the grainy footage on the news for everyone in town to see. As Drew lay in bed watching the video, he couldn’t believe his eyes. There was the fake Eric Drew, a middle-aged African American man in hospital scrubs. His name was Richard Gibson, a lab technician at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance who had tested Drew’s blood.
Drew was indignant. This guy had taken him for dead and took him to the cleaners. He was told by attorneys that he could have sued the hospital for millions, but now he just wanted justice. Four days later he got it. On March 2, 2004, Gibson turned himself in and became the first person in the country to be convicted for violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects patient privacy. Gibson was later sentenced to 16 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $9,000 in restitution.
Drew had fought to get back his good name and won. Now he was ready to reclaim his life.
Drew did not have long to celebrate his victory over Gibson. By the end of March, the necessary three months had passed since his bone marrow transplant—and it was time to get the results. It wasn’t good news. Alexa’s stem cells, Drew learned, had failed to fully engraft. “There’s nothing else we can do,” his doctors told him. “We can arrange for hospice care.”
By now, Drew was numb—how much more could his emotions be stretched? Despite the grim prognosis, the Hutchinson center offered to do a second transplant using his half brother Michael’s bone marrow. He was planning to do it, but the strain was making itself felt. He took a trip to California to reconnect with Nicole, who had just graduated from college. As he sat with her in her apartment in Chico, she teased him. “You haven’t given me a graduation present,” she said.
“OK,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “Here it is.” He handed her an engagement ring. Nicole was surprised, and afraid—afraid to take it seriously, because that would mean she had opened her heart and soul to him. She had been through the death of her mother from cancer and couldn’t bear to lose someone again. She loved him; she just didn’t want him taken from her. When she said yes to his proposal, she did it as much to give him hope.
She had also given him something else: a lead on a cure. A year earlier, after some sleuthing on ClinicalTrials.gov, the government site that keeps tabs on experimental cancer treatments, Nicole had stumbled on an article about an alternative source of stem cells: umbilical cord blood. Initially they had written this treatment off and chosen to move ahead with the marrow transplant. But now they were willing to take a second look and sought out the advice of a specialist, Tibor Kovacsovics, an associate professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University Cancer Institute.
Because of the political controversies over embryonic stem cells, information about cord blood stem cells had been unclear. But this was a noncontroversial source, Drew learned. Donations came from around the world, either from people giving cord blood to public banks or through private services that bank families’ blood. Since the mid-1990s, facilities such as the University of Minnesota’s had been performing cord blood transplants because of an implicit benefit. “Umbilical cord blood contains an enriched population of bone marrow stem cells,” says Daniel Weisdorf, director of the Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at the university. “There are large numbers of bone marrow–like stem cells with huge growth potential.”
But there was a hitch. Researchers found that the tiny amount of stem cells harvested from one cord blood source was not enough to serve a full-grown adult. So beginning in 2000, the University of Minnesota began a new approach: using stem cells from two umbilical cord blood sources, which increased the chances of engraftment in adults to 90 percent.
Drew’s doctors in Seattle had nothing to say when he asked them about the procedure; it wasn’t something they performed. Drew was incensed that he would not have even known about this option if Nicole had not gone online, but by now he understood that the fight for survival begins and ends with the patient. So he called Minnesota and made the plan. There would be risks, of course. Once again Drew’s immune system would have to be eradicated—this time with six times the radiation and more chemo. There was a 50 percent chance that he wouldn’t survive that alone. In all, his odds of survival were about 25 percent, but this was his last hope.
Drew took Nicole on the long drive to the University of Minnesota and checked into the hospital. He had a treadmill brought into his room and walked on it for a few days. But his strength didn’t last long. Doctors began wiping out his immune system again with a blast of 1,320 centigrays of gamma radiation 20 minutes twice a day for four days.
On July 23, 2004, Drew was infused with the stem cells from two sources—a newborn girl in Italy and a baby in Ohio. Hopefully, one would take. But that was just the beginning. Between the cumulative effects of the radiation and chemo and his body’s reaction to the new stem cells, the physical effects were gruesome. His skin began peeling off like strips of bacon. His body was on fire. His temperature hit 106.8 at one point, and he had to be packed in ice. Blood was coming out of his eyes and ears. Inside his body, his intestinal lining was falling apart. He had severe diarrhea filled with blood.
“It’s OK, you can die,” said Drew's mother. “No, I’m not ready,” he said. “I’m going to keep fighting.”
To survive, Drew demanded near-lethal doses of morphine. And he called on every reserve he had—yoga, controlled breathing. When he didn’t have the strength to walk on his treadmill, they came to take it away, but he refused to let them. “No,” he said, “I’ll get back on it.”
Drew focused on his dreams of being healthy and alive. Before long his sense of reality began to shift, so that he felt more in touch with his sleeping state than with being awake. He slipped into psychoses and hallucinations. A few times, he ripped the cords from his body and tried to escape the hospital. When he looked up at the caretakers around his bed, they appeared to him as angels.
At one point his mom, Cindy, couldn’t take seeing him in so much pain. She wanted him to know that he didn’t have to do this for her or for anyone else. “If you’re hanging on for me or my husband or whomever, it’s OK,” she said, “but you don’t have to do this for us.” And, painfully, she added, “It’s OK, you can die.” Drew took her hand. “No, I’m not ready,” he said. “I’m going to keep fighting.”
But all he could really do was wait to see whether the stem cells would take hold.
By November 2004, although his condition was still critical, Drew decided to go home for Thanksgiving. Six months later he went for a bone marrow biopsy from his hematologist. This was the moment of truth. When the call came with the results, he could barely hold on to the phone. He was in his parents’ house with Nicole. “Just to let you know,” the doctor said, “you’re 100 percent in remission.”
The engraftment had worked. A wave of relief washed over Drew as he hugged his family. There was more, the doctor said. Drew wasn’t just a new man. “Your blood is 100 percent female,” he said. Eric Drew, now a 37-year-old man, had the blood of an Italian girl. It was like something out of a Tom Clancy thriller. If he cut his finger while committing a crime, investigators would think that the criminal was a girl.
Drew had fought for his life and won. Like millions of people every year, he had had numerous reasons along the way to give up—but he refused. In retrospect, his mother thinks the experience of the identity theft may have saved her son. “He would thank Richard Gibson for taking his identity,” she says. “It gave him something to fight for and reenergized him after that.” Alexa also credits Drew’s tenacity for his recovery. “He’s a pain in the ass sometimes,” she says, “but I think his personality probably saved his life.”
In 2006, Drew cleared his credit that had been damaged by the identity theft and reached another key turning point, too: two years without a recurrence of his leukemia, a milestone, the doctors say, because the chances of recurrence drop radically after 24 months.
Today Drew walks with crutches (he is mostly in a wheelchair) and has joint pain related to his transplant. But he is carrying on with his life. He travels the country speaking about the benefits of cord blood transplants. He filed a lawsuit in December 2006 against the credit reporting agencies and several credit card companies, which resulted in a recent settlement with one agency that included concessions making it easier for patients to fight identity theft while they are hospitalized. He is also planning his wedding with Nicole, which will take place on the shores of Lake Tahoe this August. “It’s a fairy-tale ending that started out as a nightmare,” Nicole says. And, ultimately, Drew hopes, it’s a lesson that anyone who faces a life-threatening challenge can take to heart.
“It’s about personal accountability and taking responsibility,” he says. “We are not victims. We’re not being blown around like dust in the wind. We have control over our destiny.”