Spotlight a Survivor: Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Douglas' Story

There is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel gratitude and appreciation to be here.

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Douglas Sheriff  

Rockwell, Iowa  
Acute Myeloid Leukemia  
Transplanted in 1994  

Many thanks to the Mayo Clinic Rochester and the American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy for helping us share Doug’s story.   

  This month marks 30 years since Doug Sheriff’s life, as a young father and new teacher, was radically interrupted by illness and saved by a bone marrow transplant.

Reflecting on the three decades he’s lived in wellness, Doug smiles ear-to-ear. “There is not a day that goes by,” he says, “that I don’t feel gratitude and appreciation to be here.” That well of gratitude is fed by Doug’s bedrock faith, his loving family and his very special hometown of Rockwell, Iowa. There, he and his high school sweetheart and wife, Julie, set out to build their dream life as a young couple.   

Doug Sheriff remembers the summer of 1993 as a time of joyful chaos: he’d just finished his 6th year of teaching 5th/6th grade; Doug and Julie had two young children, Elliott and Haley, 6 and 3 respectively; and they were in the middle of building a house. Doug recalls, “I was up on a ladder the whole summer, working on the cathedral ceiling, thinking, ‘We’ll raise our kids here and live happily ever after.’” Doug pauses, “And then, I got the leukemia diagnosis.”  

The trajectory of Doug’s disease was fast and terrifying. Within six weeks of diagnosis, after two rounds of chemotherapy, he was unable to reach remission and a bone marrow transplant became the only option. As one of six siblings, Doug easily found a match. “We’re a close family,” Doug says, “there was never a doubt that we would do anything for each other.” Doug’s only brother, “the best fit,” became his donor. Doug remembers a Mayo Clinic nurse, typical of the exceptionally kind staff he encountered there, celebrating with him, “Finally! You got a good piece of news!”   

The town of Rockwell leaned into this crucial moment as well, helping Doug and Julie with fundraisers, childcare and even job security. The administration at Doug’s new school responded to his crisis with institutional caring. “I’ll never forget what they said,” Doug recalls. “‘Don’t worry, we’re going to maintain your salary and your health insurance.’ This is a small, rural school in Iowa…We are very blessed with this community.”  

In June of 1994, Doug entered the Mayo Clinic under the care of hematologist/oncologist, Dr. Mark Litzow, to receive his brother’s cells. “He and the staff were so fantastic to me and my family,” recalls Doug. Still, his recovery was rough and longer than anticipated. Doug missed an entire academic year and went from being “6 foot and maybe 180 pounds, down to 125 pounds.” When he finally returned to the classroom, Doug recalls, “This one little girl was in tears when she saw me. I wasn’t the same person who’d walked out of that building. But I also remember her hugging me, so happy I was back… It was internally healing, getting back to my normal life. And being a contributing member of society again.”  

Doug spent the next decades contributing to his town as an educator, coach and mentor to the children of Rockwell. “Transplant made me a better teacher,” Doug says. “No matter how things look from the outside, every 5th or 6th grader has challenges in their life. My goal was to help kids to be successful, whatever their gifts were, and be happy.” Determined to help one young boy who struggled academically, Doug created a sign that read: Smile, it’s only school! He hoped to relieve the intense pressure many kids feel. “Because,” as Doug says, “kids should enjoy themselves while learning!”  

One of the unique gifts of living far beyond a terrible time, and within a small town, is the opportunity to return the caring you received in kind. At a benefit fundraiser for Doug’s family, one local man bought a giant bike being raffled off and gave it to Doug’s son, Elliott. Decades later, this man’s daughter developed leukemia.  

“I’ll never forget visiting her in Mayo,” says Doug, “and telling her, ‘When you get home, when you’re healthy, we’re going to take you to pick out a bike.” When this young girl recovered, Doug was elated to be able to keep his promise, “When she spotted the bike she wanted, she said, ‘That’s it!’ And we said, ‘Great let’s get it!’ It was awesome to be able to give to her, the way their family had given to our son.”   

Doug is now retired from teaching and coaching. Happily, both his children settled nearby with their own young families. Doug and Julie spend much of their time as jubilant, active grandparents to their three small grandchildren -- Norah Kate, 3; Sage Olivia, 2; and Luke Douglas, 15 months.  

Doug reflects, “As you get further out from your transplant, you eventually just want to be known as Doug Sheriff, rather than Doug the cancer patient.” More than “patient” or “survivor” more than “educator” or “coach,” these days Doug Sheriff is Grandpa. As our Zoom chat ended, Doug’s face lit up, “Here’s my daughter-in-law, Bailey and our granddaughters. They, and Luke Douglas, are a blessing in my life.” It’s easy to imagine these words -- a blessing in my life --  as exactly the way many others in Rockwell, and beyond, describe Doug Sheriff.  

  

  

Mayo Clinic is one of the largest providers of bone marrow transplants in the United States. It has performed more than 10,000 stem cell transplants at its campuses in Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota. Since 1963, Mayo Clinic has been at the leading edge of transplant research worldwide, enabling patients to be among the first to benefit from innovative therapies and clinical trials. Learn more about Mayo’s collaborative care and excellent results at mayoclinic.org.  

The American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy (ASTCT), formerly known as the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation, is a professional society of more than 2,200 healthcare professionals and scientists from over 45 countries who are dedicated to improving the application and success of blood and marrow transplantation and related cellular therapies. ASTCT strives to be the leading organization promoting research, education and clinical practice to deliver the best, comprehensive patient care. 

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