Fighting the good fight

Published 9:10 am Wednesday, March 9, 2011

David Blythe has been suffering from primary amyloidosis, a rare blood disease that can attack the organs.


FRANKLIN—The past couple of weeks have been really good for David Blythe.

Good in the sense that for the first time in months he’s been able to keep food down.

Diagnosed with a disease so rare that it’s only shared by 3,000 people in the United States, Blythe continues to recuperate.

David Blythe with his wife, Rachel. He has been suffering from primary amyloidosis, a rare blood disease that can attack the organs. They have reason to be optimistic since they found a doctor in Boston who can treat the disease. -- STEPHEN H. COWLES | TIDEWATER NEWS

The trouble began for the 44-year-old last April. Stomach cramps and diarrhea inexplicably became regular symptoms for the chief of the Hunterdale Volunteer Fire Department.

Extensive tests, including biopsies and endoscopies, were performed to find the cause. Meanwhile, the unidentified ailment eroded 90 pounds from Blythe’s sturdy 237-pound frame.

“Purely by accident” is how the Rev. Randy Wright of Hunterdale Christian Church describes the discovery, which occurred a couple of weeks before Christmas.

During a week’s stay in Sentara Norfolk General, the cause was identified as primary amyloidosis. That’s a rare word for an even rarer blood disease.

Blythe’s wife, Rachel, said the disease has the potential to attack every organ except the brain for this type of AL. It causes organ failure.

“There are 3,000 people in the United States, and 50,000 worldwide annually who have this disease that doctors know of,” she said.

Interestingly, AL is not a form of cancer, yet it responds to chemotherapy.

“I’m not sure whether cancer wouldn’t have been better,” said Blythe, wrapped in a Virginia Tech blanket.

“My most expensive blanket,” he added with a smile.

The couple’s daughter, Mollie Patricia, attends the university. Their son, Clay, is on the honor roll at Franklin High School.

But once the name was found for Blythe’s precarious condition, the hope for a treatment took hold as there is no known cure as yet.

The couple pushed to get in touch with Dr. Raymond L. Comenzo of Tufts Medical Center in Boston. One of his specialties is the study of AL.

On meeting Blythe, the doctor admitted him to the hospital for tests as well as intravenous nutrients, which saved his life. At one point, Blythe could not hold his head up.

“There was not the first word about death,” said Rachel.

This is in contrast to the 5- to 10-year prediction given by doctors earlier. The couple and their pastor praised Comenzo for his professionalism and kindness.

As yet, four more treatments of chemotherapy are needed. Then discussion about a stem cell replant is in the future. Rachel Blythe explained that her husband’s healthy stem cells could be harvested and replanted. This is expected to kill the factory that produces AL.

“This prolongs life for quite a bit,” she said. “There’s a whole lot better outlook, but it’s not an easy road ahead.”

Blythe, who has been with the Hunterdale firefighters for 30 years, and chief for 10, said he now looks forward to the day he can return.

“It won’t be tomorrow,” he acknowledged.

Rachel emphasized that a support group found online has been a big help. No less important is the local circle of family, friends, the firefighting community, fellow church members and Pastor Wright.

“He’s the most community-minded person I know,” said Rachel, who added, “The prayers have meant more to me than anything.”

“We’re very fortunate,” she said, adding that the couple has felt the outpouring of love through “food, hugs and cards.”

Just this past weekend, for example, a bake sale took place at the church to raise funds for the Blythe’s medical expenses.

Blythe said, “I really, really, really thank the whole community from the bottom of my heart.”

He went on to praise his wife: “She’s been my angel, most definitely.” The pastor he describes as “my muscles.”