Soldier faces down Aplastic Anemia in 1980, paving the way for ATG treatment! | Aplastic Anemia & MDS International Foundation

Soldier faces down Aplastic Anemia in 1980, paving the way for ATG treatment!

Johnnie Burford was deployed in Korea.  He was a muscular 195-lb athlete, a proud member of the US Army Second Division.  Nothing stopped him from performing his duty.  Yet a rapid weight loss of 100 pounds, coupled with unusual bruising, alerted him that something was very wrong.

At first, the assigned P.A.’s gave him iron supplements. Eventually, he was sent to the hospital for testing, and to his surprise, he was not allowed to return to his unit. On August 10, 1980, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia.

Within one day, he was flown back to the medical center he chose, the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas.  Immediately he was taken to isolation---quite a difference from the life of a deployed active-duty soldier.

At the same time that Johnnie was diagnosed, four others in the same command were diagnosed as well. Johnnie was determined not to leave military service, and fought for only a temporary retirement during treatment.  At the time, his determination alone gave him hope, in spite of being told he would only live two more months.  He was given daily blood transfusions during this isolation, where he read all he could about treating aplastic anemia.  He pushed to participate in two new procedures, ATG and androgen therapy.  Each was still in the testing stages. His physicians agreed to allow him to try ATG after he had received six months of daily transfusions.

Johnnie reflected that the ATG made his skin turn purple, all over! He asked for, and received, permission to use one of General Omar Bradley’s reserved rooms at the hospital since he was confined for so long.  Following the course of ATG treatments, he had androgen therapy, which gave him severe acne and scarring. Still, he never wavered in his determination to conquer aplastic anemia. 

Johnnie’s body began responding after several months, and soon he was able to return to work and to his exercise regimen. He started running marathons again, and bulked up to his pre-illness weight and strength. His deployments took him around the globe, with no visible sign of his illness other than periodic testing. Once Johnnie retired, he began another career in construction, continuing to run marathons until age 45.  Although he is now retired with diabetes and other conditions, he remains active.

Sometimes, Johnnie thinks about the other four soldiers who were diagnosed the same year as he.  None of them lived very long past diagnosis. He was the only one of the five who participated in the clinical trials for ATG and androgen therapy, so he knows that is the reason he has survived for 39 years past diagnosis. In addition, he knows that being in peak physical condition otherwise helped him cope through treatment. In fact, he relates how, on release day from isolation, he walked five miles to the beach, and returned!
Johnnie reflects on the physicians who helped him. Dr. Farley fought for his right to remain in the military during treatment, instead of being medically discharged.  Dr. Frank Gardner and Dr. Richard Champlin were instrumental not only in saving his life, but they continued to save lives through their research and clinical work. He thinks about how the ATG he received originated from a horse in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and how his treatment has become one of the standards for treating aplastic anemia in patients worldwide.

What does Johnnie want patients to know?  He says,

Never give up!
Keep a positive attitude.
Be willing to try new treatments, and keep wanting to live!

October 4, 2019