He Aint Heavy…He’s my Brother – Gary McKinley’s Story

Jay, left, and his brother Gary McKinley

Life as they knew it changed for Gary McKinley and his wife, LeRhea, in 2007. That’s when the couple from Skaneateles, N.Y., received the diagnosis — Gary had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells which helps fight off infection and the second most common blood cancer. Gary received nine months of chemotherapy in 2008 at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, hoping to destroy the cancer cells and manage the disease. That’s when the McKinleys first stayed at Kevin Guest House.

The treatment worked, until 2013 when cancer cells came back.  Gary returned to Roswell where they performed an autologous (or “auto”) stem cell transplant, taking Gary’s own stem cells for transplant to replace the cancerous cells. The McKinleys were unable to stay again at Kevin Guest House as the limited number of transplant recovery apartments were full. They were able to find space at the Buffalo Hope Lodge, run by the American Cancer Society, which has since closed its doors.

But again, the treatment’s effectiveness was limited. In the summer of 2917, Gary started feeling fatigued and tired. Their fears of  the return of cancer were confirmed, this time with a diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia, another type of cancer affecting the blood cells. Gary had a large tumor in his spine that compressed the vertebrae and left him unable to walk. This time, Gary’s transplant needs required a donor. After testing his family, it was his brother Jay who was a 10-for-10 match.  Gary, still unable to walk, stayed in the hospital for nearly a year – July 1, 2017, through the transplant in January of 2018. He insisted that they let him return home for a break between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2017 or “I wouldn’t have been able to make it through,” Gary said.

The transplant between brothers took place on Jan. 9, 2018. Gary had platelets infused daily from early February through June, until he could feel strong enough to move on his own with the help of a walker.

Aside from the excellent care he received from the team at Roswell, Gary credits his recovery to his family. When his wife, LeRhea, had to return to her job as a first-grade teacher in Skaneateles, the rest of his family picked up the slack. Having a place like Kevin Guest House so close to the hospital and able to accommodate his family throughout the process was critical.

“You guys have bent over backward to make me and my whole family feel welcome, ” Gary said. “There is no way I could have made it through all of this without this support.”

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