This won’t come as a shock, but the view from a hospital bed is pretty bleak. No one’s days should be scheduled around IV drips, medicines with unpronounceable names, and countless scans of a body that’s just getting weaker. No, life from a hospital bed isn’t the way most of us want to live, but it’s especially difficult for people like the young and brilliant David Fajgenbaum.

But for David, the term “death sentence” doesn’t exist. When he contracted a deadly disease, he knew even the rarest ailments can be remedied…only his doctors couldn’t manage it. He only got sicker, and as time started running out, he resolved to find what was causing his strange red spots all by himself — or die trying.

From his hospital bed at the University of Arkansas, 28-year-old David Fajgenbaum wrote his last will and testament on a piece of paper. It was December of 2013, and he was under the impression that this Christmas would be his last. 

Anyone who saw David three years before wouldn’t have recognized the pale guy in the hospital bed. As he was wheeled to a CT scan he wasn’t sure he’d live through, he thought of everything he’d already survived…

ABC News

Born in North Carolina, David spent his childhood years either on the football field or watching, fascinated, from the bench. While other 13 year olds were punching their alarm clocks, David was out jogging at 5 A.M. each morning.

He was tan and muscular, and before long, he was one of Georgetown University’s star quarterbacks. His life was everything he’d always dreamed: He played football, excelled in school, and had a bright future. But in 2004, David’s fairy-tale life came crashing down.

David’s mother died of cancer, an event that spurred him towards another goal: to become a doctor. After earning his master’s at Oxford, he became a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. Nothing, he decided, would distract him from becoming an oncologist.

Georgetown University

During his third year at U Penn, however, he started to feel strangely. He had flu-like symptoms that he just couldn’t shake. He was exhausted, beyond the normal everyday fatigue a medical student feels. And then there were the marks on his body…

It was during his first hospital stay in 2010 that he was diagnosed with Idiopathic Multicentric Castleman disease, an autoimmune disease and a form of cancer. He was hospitalized for five months — the first of many future stints in the hospital.

David Fajgenbaum

The medical student’s body was attacking itself, and each time he achieved remission, the disease just came roaring back months later. His stomach filled with fluid while his organs failed, making the athletic man from years before totally unrecognizable.

The only way he could attack the disease was with intense rounds of chemotherapy. With every needle, IV, and scan, his dreams of graduating from medical school, marrying his girlfriend, and having children all disappeared.

David Fajgenbaum, Huffington Post

Each time he was forced to put his life on hold, he wondered when his body would finally give out. During one of his relapses, a priest was called to read David his last rites. Everything pointed towards David’s demise…

But David was a quarterback at heart. Giving up wasn’t an option. He graduated from medical school having avoided death multiple times, but he didn’t start a residency like his med school peers. David knew exactly where his focus needed to be. 

David Fajgenbaum, Huffington Post

“Patients pick up on things no one else sees,” David once said, and that was certainly the case with the strange red spots on his skin. His doctors called them “blood moles” — and everyone said they were no big deal. David wasn’t so sure.

Medical News Today

So in 2013, when David began an MBA at Penn’s Wharton School, he founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, a global initiative dedicated to fighting the disease. He worked to understand the disease that return at any moment.

David Fajgenbaum, Huffington Post

The way he ran the C.D.C.N. was unconventional: Instead of having people apply for grants, the C.D.C.N. handpicked the best researchers and doctors to study Castleman. While he increased awareness of the disease, he had preventative chemo treatments every three weeks.

David Fajgenbaum

Meanwhile, David didn’t live like death was always around the corner. He got engaged to his girlfriend, and the couple hoped for a free and open future. But then, in late 2013, the red spots resurfaced.

David found himself in that hospital bed with his handwritten will, and he could barely move his head. The blood moles were freckled down his arms and chest. He studied them and his medical charts, all the while searching for answers…

A few grueling months later, his makeshift will at the bottom of a trash can, David noticed something odd on his medical charts. A protein called Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor had spiked ten times its normal level.

He knew that V.E.G.F. controlled blood vessel growth…which can cause blood moles. With this revelation, he came up with a hypothesis: The blood moles appeared because of the protein spike, which signaled his immune system to attack itself.

New York Times/Super Freak

It was an unexplored hypothesis — but also a compelling one. If he was right, all he would need is an immunosuppressant called Sirolimus to ensure his immune system didn’t attack itself. The idea of obtaining such a drug was daunting…

But there it was, at a pharmacy less than a mile from his home. “A drug that could potentially save my life was hiding in plain sight,” David said. With not much to lose, he gave the medicine a shot.

Daily Herald

Five years later, David is still in remission. An assistant medical professor in Pennsylvania, he is currently conducting a clinical trial for Sirolimus’ impact on Castleman patients. For him, though, the impact is obvious: It gave him his life back…

Sirolimus gave David and his girlfriend the future they deserved. They wed in 2014 and their daughter was born in 2018. “She’s such a little miracle,” his wife said. And considering David’s journey to parenthood, we think “miracle” pretty much sums it up.

David would join eleven-year-old Roxli Doss as those lucky enough to receive a medical miracle. She attended church regularly, as the Doss family were active members. Outside school hours, she was happiest hanging out at the stables and learning to ride horses.

GoFundMe

Nearing the end of her school year, Roxli started feeling a little off. At first, she chalked it up to a headache; she brushed it aside. Over the next few days, though, her pain wasn’t ebbing, and Roxli couldn’t ignore it.

Flickr

Doing as sick kids do, she complained to her mom. Gena and Scott Doss looked into their parental bag of tricks and gave their daughter some children’s pain reliever. Headaches happen, after all, and they hoped this would do the trick.

Heavy

Days turned to weeks, and Roxli’s headaches grew stronger and more frequent. Her parents, concerned that their daughter was too young to experience incessant migraines, decided it was time to have their family physician weigh in.

Flickr

The doctor ran tests as a precaution to see if there was any visible explanation for Roxli’s reoccurring headaches. Examining the lab findings, the doctor discovered an immediate root cause of the pain.

Flickr

Gathered in the doctor’s office, Gena and Scott were shattered by the news she delivered. Roxli’s results confirmed that she had an extremely rare kind of tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG.

Gena Layne Doss / Facebook

A childhood cancer diagnosis is a very particular kind of devastation, and the Doss family received the worst of the sort. The location of her tumor, at the base of her brain and top of her spine, made it impossible to remove.

Research Gate

Gena and Scott listened as the doctor explained how the disease would begin to effect Roxli’s body: “decreased ability to swallow, vision loss, decreased ability to talk, eventual difficulty breathing.” Doctor Virginia Harrod at Dell Children’s Medical Center words stung in their ears.

Alpha News

With no known cure, the best Doctor Harrod could offer for medical advice was aggressively treating Roxli with radiation. No, her cancer wouldn’t be cured, but at least it would buy her more time than what a typical DIPG diagnosis offers.

UPMC

Before they could accept this bleak sentence, they needed to get another opinion. DIPG was incredibly rare, so there was a chance of misdiagnosis. The moment they left the hospital, they reached out to their church community for prayers.

Flickr

Hopping on planes, the Doss family visited all the best children’s cancer centers in the country: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, University of Texas MD Anderson in Houston, and Texas Children’s Hospital in Austin.

Gena Layne Doss / Facebook

Across the board, oncology specialists told them the same thing: Roxli’s tumor was, in fact, DIPG. They listed the many bodily functions that would begin to shut down as cancer progressed. The general consensus was a rapid decline in breathing, heartbeat, swallowing, balance, and sight.

The Times Herald

Normally, patients facing a DIPG diagnosis live an average of 9 months after their initial diagnosis, but Roxli’s family refused to resign themselves to a deadline. Gena and Scott put their game faces on, determined not to give up hope that their daughter would be the exception to the rule.

USA Today

Praying for a miracle, the family became a fixture at the Dell Children’s Medical Center. Most children with a DIPG diagnosis fall between ages 5-9, so 11-year-old Roxli was even more of a medical anomaly.

US Health News

Six days a week for six weeks, Roxli toughed it out in a hospital bed. When her arms weren’t full of tubes, she was undergoing radiation to shrink the tumor below her brain. Along with treatment came the toll of nausea, fever, and constant fatigue.

Life Daily

Even in the midst of painful treatments, Roxli was in good spirits. The Doss family maintained extreme confidence in their faith, and their church community rallied to support them. A GoFundMe page was set up to help fund the unexpected costs of her immediate treatments.

Gena Layne Doss / Facebook

After completing rigorous radiation treatments, Roxli and her parents stepped back into the hospital, this time to see if her tumor had shrunken as they hoped. Gena and Scott watched their daughter lay down for yet another MRI, they wondered how their lives had changed so much in a few months time.

Flickr

Armed with the knowledge that 70% of patients see effective shrinkage in tumor size from radiation, Dr. Howard examined the results. “When I first saw Roxli’s MRI scan, it was actually unbelievable.”

Cincinnati Childrens Hopsital

Roxli’s scans seemed impossible. Expecting to see a tumor reduced in size, Doctor Howard was astonished that the image of a child’s brain was completely free of any signs of a tumor. It had utterly vanished.

Scott Doss / Facebook

The odds were so unlikely, Roxli made medical history. She’s the first DIPG patient to have their tumor fully removed by radiation therapy. In the eyes of the Doss Family, it’s simply an example of a miracle.

Gena Layne Doss / Facebook

“Every day we still say it. It’s kind of our family thing that God healed Roxli,” Gena said. Looking at statistics of her prognosis didn’t falter the Doss’ strength of faith for a second. They kept their prayers and hope alive, and in the end, Roxli defied the odds.

Gena Layne Doss / Facebook

Still, the medical community was interested in how a result this positive came out of one of the worst childhood cancers. Dr. Hadjipanayis, director of neurosurgical oncology at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, said the rapid elimination of tumor was unheard of, as was zero traces of its existence on an MRI.

Mount Sinai

Outlining an explanation for Roxli’s case, Dr. Hadjipanayis noted the possibility of the DIPG diagnosis as inaccurate. Granted, five of the top oncology centers in the country determined her cancer was the aggressive form of tumor, despite being unable to perform a biopsy.

MSKCC

Whether a miracle of science or faith, we can’t be sure. For the near future, Roxli must continue getting scans and tests from her medical team periodically to ensure the cancer cells won’t return.

Neon Nettle

To stop the regrowth in its track, Roxli’s receiving immunotherapy, a newer cancer treatment that involves redirecting your own existing cells to fight the disease. So far, the little trooper is back on her 11-year-old feet, head held high.

Gena Layne Davis / Facebook

Scott’s smile could be heard in his words, “We didn’t know how long she would be healthy and look at her, she’s just doing awesome.” It goes to show that maintaining hope in the face of the worst diagnosis has value. Medical certainties are never 100%, as one other Texas family learned.

Gena Layne Doss / Facebook

On Mother’s Day in 2014, Darla Rodgers and her husband, Tim, were having a mellow celebration in their home. While they were watching a movie in their living room, Darla was struck with severe pains in her abdomen.

As the pain worsened, Tim didn’t want to take any chances with Darla’s health, so he drove her to a nearby hospital. He wanted a doctor to examine her just in case the pain was something serious, like appendicitis.

Once at the hospital, doctors took a sample of blood from Darla and, after examining it, determined a short-notice CAT scan was warranted. This wasn’t at all what Darla and Tim were expecting. They prayed nothing serious would come of it.

After the CAT scan was complete, Darla and Tim waited anxiously in the hospital room for the results. After what seemed like hours, the doctor came back, and he had a grim look on his face…

He stared at the couple intently before pulling out the results of the CAT scan. He then spoke three words that made both Darla and Tim go numb with fear: “You have cancer.” Darla’s world instantly collapsed.

More specifically, the doctor told Darla Darla she had stage-four colon cancer, and within six months, she would die. She checked herself into the Huntsman Cancer Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, to begin an intense chemotherapy regimen in hopes she could beat the odds.

Like nearly all patients who underwent chemo, she began to get sick from the constant radiation flooding her body. Finally, one doctor stepped in with a totally different plan…

His name was Dr. Glynn Gilcrease, and he was an Associate Professor of Oncology. He feared the approach Darla was taking would have detrimental effects on her liver, so he put her on a lower chemotherapy dose. However, he also wanted to get a second opinion on the matter.

Dr. Gilcrease consulted with a close colleague and section chief for Interventional Radiology, Ryan O’Hara. After an in-depth discussion about the safest option for Darla, both men agreed on a potential solution…

It was called radioembolization. The intricate process would launch millions of microscopic radioactive beads directly into Darla’s bloodstream, where they’d lodge themselves into her body and slowly destroy the tumor. It was a complicated procedure that didn’t always work.

The doctors also had access to SIR-spheres, minuscule spheres infused with a special radioactive isotope used for battling cancer. The level of radioactivity in SIR-spheres was much safer than most other cancer-fighting medications. With all these tools at hand, Darla’s operation began…

Dr. O’Hara and six of his colleagues spent hours operating on Darla. For eight days after the operation, she went through intense, and often painful, specialized treatments. However, on the ninth day, miraculously, she felt better than she had in months.

She didn’t want to get her hopes up, however. Cancer, as she knew, is ruthless, and it can creep up again at any moment. A few weeks after her invasive operation, doctors ran some tests and came back to her with news…

The tumors on her lungs and liver had disappeared! Her body took to the SIR-spheres, and for the first time in what felt like forever, she didn’t need chemotherapy. She also became very close with a woman who went through a similar experience.

Her name was Suzanne Lindley, and she was a 19-year cancer survivor. She was also the founder of a Texas-based cancer support group called Yes! Beat Liver Tumors. Suzanne, having lived through cancer herself, took Darla under her wing.

Not only did Suzanne shower Darla with emotional support, but she made Darla the poster child for her support group. Darla embraced the opportunity and involved herself in as many fundraisers and opportunities to help others as possible.

A lot of amazing opportunities came along because of Darla’s involvement with Suzanne’s group. She was invited to the Academy Awards one year, and she went to the People’s Choice Awards. But neither of those compared to one incredible event she took part in…

Darla walked down the runway for a special fashion show that featured cancer survivors! It was an incredible opportunity to spread a positive message for those who were braving a battle of their own. Of course, Darla couldn’t have done any of this without one particular person…

Her husband Tim showed a level of support and understanding matched by no one else in her life. He was by her side the entire time and always made sure to keep her mood up. Finally cancer free, Darla made it her mission to live every day to the fullest!