For years, doctors had warned that trouble was coming.
When Rhea Watson was diagnosed and treated for leukemia as a young woman, she was told that the chemotherapy and radiation could affect her ability to have children. She successfully completed treatment and became a nurse at the cancer center herself. She specializes in helping young patients navigate treatment to best protect their chances of having children.
So when the pregnancy tests went negative for Wilson and her husband Zach, they were prepared for a difficult path of fertility treatments.
When they least expected it, everything changed.
“I decided I would call the fertility doctors to schedule an appointment, and I took the test to rule out pregnancy. Then it came back positive, ”she said. “We were so shocked.”
Watson is entering this Mother’s Day as an expectant mother. She will give birth to a baby boy in July. Her unique background as a patient and now a nurse has helped her realize how blessed her family is, and she enjoys the little moments that brought her here.
“It was kind of nice for me to have a goal after going through cancer and physical therapy and everything else at such a young age,” she said. “What I do matters, and now I can show to some patients the hope that their future can really be normal.”
In their home in Bargersville, the Watsons’ new nursery is taking shape.
They chose a soothing green for the predominant color. The crib has been assembled and placed in a corner by the window. A sliding rocking chair sits in another corner, waiting for late night feedings and rocking baby Nash to sleep.
Now Rhea and Zach Watson just have to wait.
‘I feel that he is constantly moving. So we’re starting to get really excited, ”said Rhea Watson.
That had not been the journey until now. It had been one filled with many highs and incredible lows.
Watson was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia on May 15, 2009, at the end of her senior year at Center Grove High School. Prior to diagnosis, she had had an increased rate of colds and minor illnesses. She was a remarkable softball player, but seemed to be getting more and more tired.
At her graduation ball she only had enough energy to dance two songs.
Two weeks later, Watson developed a nosebleed that would not stop. The situation was bad enough that her parents took her to the emergency room, where she was given nasal spray. A second uncontrollable nosebleed forced doctors to run a series of tests. They confirmed that she had leukemia, which affects the bone marrow’s ability to produce healthy white blood cells that fight disease. If left untreated, it can quickly spiral out of control.
Although she was already 18, doctors at Riley Hospital for Children thought she would feel more comfortable and better in younger patients. She was taken to hospital two months later.
Her treatment plan required chemotherapy every week for the first eight months. In July 2009, Watson was in remission. But since cancer cells could still go unnoticed in the body, the most effective course was 24 months of cancer-killing drugs.
Watson suffered from complications from the drug regiment, including her liver failing at one point. She had more than 20 spinal taps and lumbar punctures to check for leukemia cells appearing in her spinal fluid.
All the while, the kindness and compassion of Riley’s medical staff moved her. She was inspired to study nursing at Indiana University, and six years after she first became a hospital patient, she became a nighttime nurse for hematology and oncology in the cancer ward.
She has been a nurse for six years now, first as a nurse before going to the outpatient clinic.
“For the first year or two, I really tried to orient myself towards becoming a nurse – figuring out how to become a nurse,” she said. “Once I was transferred to the outpatient clinic, I knew that was what I wanted to do. There I was a patient, I knew most of the nurses there. It was really cool to switch from their patient to their colleague. “
About two years ago, the Riley Hospital for Children started a fertility preservation program, or onco-fertility. The goal was to help consider how treatment would affect a patient’s fertility later in life.
Chemotherapy and radiation, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, can cause “late” side effects that can occur months or years after stopping treatment, including infertility or the inability to conceive a child without medical intervention.
Part of the Riley Hospital for Children program includes advising on the risk of infertility based on planned chemotherapy treatment and providing options for maintaining the patient’s fertility.
Watson was asked to be part of that team that ran that program.
“As a fertility preservation program, we consult at any age. When they have a new cancer diagnosis, we consult with them. We also do Simon Cancer Center breast cancer patients, younger females where we can help them save their eggs, ”she said. “My passion for the program stems from my own treatment.”
When Watson was a patient she was 18 years old and did not think about having children. But she remembers thinking chemotherapy was toxic – what would that do to her ability to have children?
Talks with her parents and doctors at Riley led to a treatment plan that would have less of an impact on her reproductive organs. Still, she was at a moderate risk of not being able to conceive without medical intervention, or of an early menopause.
After going through it herself, it helps in dealing with her patients.
“I think it helps some patients see what their future might look like,” she said. “Everyone’s treatment is so different, and how people react is so different, so you have to take that into account. But it was a lot of fun showing children and families what the future might look like. “
Knowing all this, Rhea and Zach Watson were prepared to need fertility treatment when they took steps to start a family of their own in 2020. start the fertility process.
But they waited.
‘We thought we would put it off until the end of the year, and if it hadn’t happened by then, we would start. Then we found out in November, ”said Watson. “It was so long ago, and we didn’t think it would happen that month either.”
The day the Watsons found out they were going to have a child, Rhea and Zach Watson were preparing for election night. Zach Watson was grilling in the backyard.
Without telling her husband, Rhea Watson went in and took a pregnancy test, assuming it would come back negative. She was wrong.
“I just remember thinking, this can’t be right,” she said. “It was so crazy.”
She told her husband, who was also an unbeliever. Although excited, they were careful until they could confirm it. Zach Watson ran to get additional pregnancy tests, all of which came back positive.
An appointment with her doctor further confirmed it. The first trimester was stressful, as the Watsons were reluctant to celebrate too much, knowing it was still early in the process. But at every appointment, doctors gave the report of a healthy baby boy.
Excitement built up.
Until now, the pregnancy has been without complications. Rhea Watson has not experienced the cravings, nausea, or fatigue that often accompany pregnancy. She exercises four more times a week.
“We joke that I’ve been through so much leukemia that God gives me a little rest,” she said.
Although this weekend is Mother’s Day, Rhea Watson is still having a hard time thinking of herself as a mother. Not that she’s worried, just that the concept of ‘motherhood’ still seems strange to her.
“I’m so excited that he’s here, and we’re a family of three or four, since I used to be a dog mom,” she said. “But I haven’t really thought about what it means to be a mother. This is our first, but we are so excited. “