To Ann and Don Ovsak of Rhinelander, their daughter Isabel is more than precious. She’s a living symbol of overcoming cancer and moving on with their lives.
Ann and Don Ovsak of Rhinelander, with then-infant daughter Isabel.
Back in 1999, Don was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and began an aggressive treatment plan.
In the process, he underwent chemotherapy (both intravenously and through a spinal tap into the spinal fluid covering the brain), radiation therapy and a transplant of his own healthy stem cells.
Before the most aggressive of the treatments, nurses brought up the topic of having children in the future.
“Having kids was the last thing on our minds. I just wanted to live through it,” recalled Don, the plant manager of Northern Lakes Concrete in Eagle River.
Nurses Mary Jo Peplinski, R.N., and Jill Depke, N.P., pointed out that the last round of treatment would likely have a detrimental effect on Don’s sperm.
If the young couple ever wanted a child, this was probably the last chance to freeze his still-fertile sperm for possible future in-vitro fertilization.
The Ovsaks agreed and arranged to have the sperm frozen and stored at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.
“We wouldn’t have done it without the nurses talking about it,” Ann noted. “Jill had children herself and she and Mary Jo were like our second little family. We saw them every day for a while, and at that point you’re not just a patient. Some of the chemotherapy is horrible, horrible stuff, and they were like our extended family through the whole thing.”
The cancer-fighting medicine was so powerful that on one occasion, Don had a reaction, stopped breathing during a treatment and had to be revived by Mary Jo.
Ann, now a registered nurse herself, had taken a short break to go to the cafeteria but heard an emergency page and sensed it was for Don. After hurrying back, she found a crowd of nurses and doctors leaving his room.
Rezwan Islam, M.D., Don’s medical oncologist, said ALL in adults is a very aggressive form of cancer. As a young man, Don needed to be treated with the most effective drugs possible, which were available under a clinical research trial through Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.
The Community Clinical Oncology Program offered not only the trial drugs, but also the collaboration of physicians from different specialties in Marshfield Clinic. Beyond that, Dr. Islam is proud of the nurses for being proactive with the Ovsaks.
“We’re constantly trying to provide the best quality of cancer care a person can get,” he noted, “realizing there is a short-term outlook, a long term outlook, and aspects of life that make our lives fulfilling such as having a family. This was very unusual. We don’t see it all the time.”
Unpleasant as they were, the therapies did their job and put Don into remission. Once the treatments were done, it was time to think of a child.
Because Marshfield Clinic does not perform in vitro fertilization, arrangements were made to have the procedure done elsewhere.
The process involved stimulating Ann’s ovaries to produce many eggs, retrieving the mature eggs, fertilizing them with Don’s sperm (frozen from eight years earlier) and implanting them back into her uterus. It took two tries before the effort was successful.
“I thought I was pregnant but I was a little nervous because the first time it didn’t work,” Ann recalled.
Tests confirmed the second attempt was successful and Ann had a healthy pregnancy. Isabel was born June 23, 2009, on the Ovsaks’ eighth anniversary and just two days after Father’s Day.
"I can't say enough about the professionalism and the superb quality of care that I received from all of the staff at Marshfield Clinic,” Don said. “They really make a very scary thing in a person's life comforting and they were very supportive of me and my family through this experience.
“The nurses kept saying during my treatment that life will go on eventually but you don’t believe that at the time,” Don said before turning to look at Isabel cooing in her mother’s arms.
“She is pretty impressive and I think she’s a symbol of our lives moving on.”