Bernard Llave led an extremely active life – from running marathons to doing CrossFit and participating in obstacle races, he was the ultimate weekend warrior. “It wasn’t just a casual thing. It was a lifestyle,” notes Bernard’s girlfriend, Dee Christman. “So when he started to slow down, it became very apparent very quickly.”
Bernard began to feel extreme fatigue around the same time he developed a tooth infection that wouldn’t heal, followed by fevers and night sweats. Bernard’s oral surgeon advised him to get a blood test done. Bernard was soon after diagnosed with leukemia, specifically acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML.
He underwent chemotherapy right away, which put him into remission. But he wasn’t completely out of the woods. “We recommend people with leukemia in first remission to be considered for a bone marrow transplant,” said Len Farol, MD, bone marrow transplant physician at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center.
But donors can be hard to come by, particularly for minorities. Due to a donor shortage, 120,000 people a year wait on transplant lists, and 18 people on these lists die each day. But Bernard was one of the lucky ones; his sister was found to be a perfect match. He received his transplant on October 10, 2012.
The first 100 days following his transplant were tough for Bernard. He was kept in insolation and his body was weak and at risk of rejecting his sister’s cells. Mentally, he struggled with the idea of not being able to get his physical strength back. “After being in isolation for two months, you start wondering if you’ll ever do that stuff again,” he recalled.
But encouragement from those around him helped Bernard get back on his feet. He credits his Crossfit family, particularly his coach Mark Lin, his Kaiser Permanente care team, and Dr. Farol for helping him make him physically and mentally strong again. Just two months after his 100 days was up, he ran his first 5K event. For his one-year anniversary, he ran another 5K event called YOLT (You Only Live Twice). Dr. Farol ran beside him.
Moved by his experience, Bernard, Dee and their friends started a nonprofit called b.strong, an effort dedicated to educating people about leukemia, becoming a bone marrow donor, and granting temporary financial assistance to low-income leukemia patients and their families.