When Azaelea Bleichner started experiencing lingering health issues, her parents assumed she was suffering from food allergies.
Fevers. Then stomach pains. Then sudden weight loss. It was enough to convince her mother, Jessica Bleichner, to take her daughter in for a doctor’s appointment. After a rigorous series of tests, it was revealed that Azalea, then 12, wasn’t allergic to anything she was eating. No, the cause of her ailments was far more serious and it manifested in the form of chronic myeloid leukemia.
This was late March 2020, a time most people will associate with the arrival of COVID-19 to American shores and state-enforced health mandates. As the world was being flipped upside down, inside the Bleichner house the family now had to contend with a form of cancer that — coupled with side effects of treatment — threatened to wipe out their daughter’s immune system during the worst worldwide pandemic in close to a century.
“You do a lot of acting,” Jessica said. “We try to be as cool as we can, because it doesn't help to panic and freak out in those moments. I really just tried to keep the vibe in the room as peaceful as possible and not add to that stress. … (Azaelea) was scared. We didn’t know what phase it was in, if it was life threatening or not, and she’s old enough to understand that.”
The outside world, on the other hand, wasn’t helping matters. Like many workers during the pandemic, Jessica was laid off from her jobs as an assistant brewer at Roundhouse Brewery and a server at Bar Harbor Supper Club, while her husband, Jesse — a technician at Holden Electric Co. and the family’s sole health care policy holder — faced the prospect of needing extended leave to take care of his family.
Their other children — older sisters Lily, 16, and Ambrosia, 15, as well as younger brother Keenen, 11 — suddenly found themselves in a household where their sister and parents couldn’t be together with them for any substantial length of time. Schools were closing and extracurricular activities were being suspended. Suddenly, the kids had to stay in, cooped up, alone in their Pequot Lakes house for days at a time.
For the Bleichners, a healthy family of outgoing nature-enthusiasts who didn’t have a single member on any form of medication prior to last year, 2020 was a splash of cold water to the face in more ways than one.
But, that all paled in comparison to Azaelea’s saga. Honestly, Jessica said, the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly faded into the background while she faced cancer. COVID-19 was mostly an intrusive presence, she said, that barged into every step of the treatment process, complicating seemingly every aspect of their time at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital where Azaelea was being treated.
“I was just hyper-focused on the task at hand, so the pandemic became kind of secondary,” Jessica said. “I can’t think of a single thing it did not affect. I felt bad because we had our kids back home by themselves. They had a whole bunch of responsibility just being home and having to handle a pandemic without having their mom or dad there consistently with them. We couldn't really have people in the home. They really had to step up.”
Leukemia is a form of cancer that attacks blood cells and bone marrow of the individual and this means that it often isn’t localized to one area of the body. As such, surgery and more targeted forms of treatment are largely out of the question.
To undergo treatment, Jessica said, her daughter had to face a daunting chemotherapy regimen that placed stress on every cell of Azaelea’s body, wiping out swaths of her healthy blood cells in the hope it would eradicate the cancerous malefactors lurking throughout. Azaelea often needed blood transfusions to compensate for the loss, which presented an unsustainable solution in the long run, as the body can only take so many transfusions of foreign blood before it experiences related problems of its own.
There were also other complications — some of them serious and life-threatening. While undergoing treatment through apheresis — essentially, a kind of dialysis to filter and oxygenate the blood when it’s being coagulated by chemotherapy — a specialist inserted a sort of catheter into Azaelea’s neck and accidentally punctured her jugular and clavicular arteries. This caused blood to pool internally, placing enormous pressure on her lungs. It was a situation that could have been fatal.
As this emergency was unfolding and medical professionals whirled into action, Jessica — who, because of COVID-19 protocols, was the only parent present — had to wait through an agonizing period of uncertainty.
“It was pretty tough,” Jessica said. “I was with her at the time, as only one parent was allowed to be with a patient at a time, so my husband and I couldn't be there together. I was just in a waiting room by myself during all this. It was probably the lowest point of everything.”
It has been a slow, arduous path upward, Jessica said, but at the very least it is trending upward. Doctors determined Azaelea wasn’t responding to treatment, that her body couldn’t take any more transfusions and, thus, a bone marrow transplant was in order. Thankfully, a 29-year-old German man was found to be a match and Azaelea is currently undergoing a lengthy process to inject healthy donor cells into the bloodstream, where they can percolate and take root in her body.
Her immune system remains compromised, which means she’s been isolated during a long impatient stay and recently passed the 70-day mark in a 100-day period where she’s required to live in isolation within 30 minutes of the children’s hospital. With an 80% chance of curing the condition, her prognosis is looking better, though there is always the possibility Azaelea will require checkups and various forms of medication for the rest of her life.
In the eyes of her family, Azaelea is described as a gentle soul who’s kind, loving and empathetic, with a special affinity for animals and aspirations to become a Harvard-educated lawyer fighting against injustice. Now, after more than 12 months of upheaval — of the mind and body, of the home, and of the world — Jessica said Azaelea’s presented another side of her personality: Toughness and a steely sense of resolve.
“I’ve learned she is just so strong,” her sister Lily said. “She's gone through something that I can't even fathom. She’s the strongest person I know.”
There’s also been lessons about the nature of humanity and community — many of them uncomfortable, some of them painful. As the mother of an immunocompromised child, Jessica said, it’s always a disheartening experience to see so many people in the Brainerd lakes area reject masks because it might momentarily inconvenience them.
On the other hand, the Bleichner family has faced backlash from other members of the community over scientific misconceptions. Because Azaelea’s treatments are deeply rooted in stem cell technology, Jessica said, some people have denounced them as “baby killers,” even though not a single fetus was involved and Azaelea’s transplant is based in stem cells harvested from an adult.
But, that isn’t to say it’s only been a lesson in the uglier side of people. Jessica was quick to laud Holden Electric Co, who she said has bent over backwards to protect Jesse’s health care benefits despite the fact he’s been unable to work enough hours to meet the minimum benchmark for coverage. If it wasn’t for the help of institutions like the Childhood Cancer Research Fund, Be The Match, Doug the Pug Foundation, and others, Jessica said, Azaelea’s road to recovery might not be possible. And then, it’s the little things, like the tireless work of social workers and caretakers who helped the Bleichners shoulder their burden.
It’s often said that there’s no stronger bond than between a mother and her child. It’s also often been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps, if there’s one lesson that can be taken from 2020 and Azaelea’s journey, it’s that — whether you’re a mother or a daughter; whether you’re an adult or a child — it takes the efforts of a community to protect and sustain all of us.
“I’m really thankful for our community. We love the Brainerd area. It's home, and we can't wait to be home again,” Jessica said. “We're really thankful for everyone in our community that really rallied around us and helped. There’s a lot of good people in Brainerd.”