How I survived Leukemia in my seventies
Harold Ballon is 81 years old, and, due to his spirit and determination, has led a daringly colorful and charmed life. His story should be encouraging to anyone.
As a child, Harold experienced and lived through the bombing of his birthplace, London, in World War II.
The war over, at 15, Harold joined the United Kingdom Merchant Navy.
At 18, Harold signed on with the Queen Mary as a dishwasher, and, at 19, Harold had his first chance to see New York and decided that someday he would migrate to the United States.
In the 1950s Harold’s parents opened up a very successful world-famous Jewish delicatessen in London on Great Windmill Street. Later Harold shocked his parents when he told them he wanted to move to the United States. His parents decided to go with him to Cleveland, but later, since they had friends in California that was where they would go.
With his parents, his wife and their daughter, they traveled down on Route 66 from Cleveland to California. That was in 1959 when Harold was 29 years old.
More recently, Harold survived from a severe bout with leukemia while in his late seventies. Harold’s doctor, Dr. Jeffrey Andrey of Scripps Clinic in Rancho Bernardo said Harold was a “hero.”
Here is Harold’s story:
Harold was born on Jan 3rd 1930 in a hospital called the Royal Free Hospital on Gray's Inn Road in London—which was on the same street where his parents lived at 107 Gray's Inn Road. Harold lived there until he was nine.
His mother, Fanny, worked for Harold’s grandfather, who in turn worked for Burberry as a master tailor. Harold’s father, Jack Ballon, worked for a women’s dress store in the west end of London as a shalper, a Jewish term for one who stands in the street, urging customers to come in and shop.
In September 1939, World War II broke with the attack of Germany on Poland. Harold, nine years old at the time, was evacuated from London as were other children to places the government thought they would be safe. Harold wound up in Newberry, a small town 50 miles from London.
In a matter of days after Harold was evacuated, German bombers arrived over London, bombing the west end and the center part of London.
For three years, Harold lived in Newberry with foster parents, going to school and leading a normal life—normal under the circumstances.
Harold’s parents visited him when they could. Harold’s foster parent was a guard on a train, and the person who had taken Harold to Newberry for safety. Since he worked on the train, he was able to see Harold’s father in London frequently, and get him latest information on Harold.
Harold returned home to Gray's Inn Road in 1943. The war was still on and consequently Harold witnessed attacks of the German buzz-bombs and V2 rockets that were devastating London.
One day at about 3:00pm, Harold remembers being upstairs in his house when warning sirens sounded the alarm.
His parents ran downstairs to the basement and were calling for Harold come on down. Harold answered, “Yeah, I’ll be down, I’ll be down.” All of a sudden, a buzz-bomb passed over the street; the engine stopped, which meant it was going to crash. The buzz bomb hit the very hospital down the street where Harold was born. Harold ran out of the house to see what had happened. Fortunately, due to his age, the first-aid workers told him to return to the safety of his house.
On another occasion Harold came out a movie theater at about 9:00pm to take the bus home. Suddenly, a U2 rocket dropped about a quarter of a mile away. Harold saw its huge flash in the sky and then heard the explosion. He learned later that the U2 had wiped out an entire city block.
Harold was 15 in 1945 when the war ended. He remembers being in Piccadilly Circus with thousands of people celebrating the end of the war.
The war over, at only 15, Harold joined the United Kingdom Merchant Navy going to work on a commercial ship called the Orion, which from England, through the Suez Canal, with stops at Bombay, Perth, and Melbourne, finally arriving in Sydney, Australia.
Harold left the Merchant Navy when he was 18 and signed on with the Queen Mary as a dishwasher. At 19, Harold had his first chance to see New York and that was when he got the first feelings that he wanted someday to migrate to the United States.
While Harold was working on the Queen Mary, on one trip the ship took Winston Churchill to America to meet President Truman.
It was a very exciting job for Harold, but at the age of 20, restless as he was, Harold returned to London. It was the 1950s and Harold’s parents had opened up a very successful world-famous Jewish delicatessen in London on Great Windmill Street.
Harold’s father, Jack, being like his son and with the gift of gab, happened to meet a fellow from Burberry in their London at store in Haymarket. Jack succeeded in getting Harold a job with Burberry at the American Army’s Post Exchange, the PX, in Munich, Germany. There, it was Harold’s job to measure suits for American GIs, sending the measurements back to London and delivering the completed suits they arrived in Munich.
While in Munich, when Harold met Brunhilda, or Hilda as she was called—the lady who was to become his first wife. Harold and Hilda lived together in a hotel in Munich for several years until his parents found out about the relationship.
Since Harold was Jewish, his mother was “walking around in black,” as they say. She wanted to disown Harold and had his father go to Munich to bring Harold back to London—which he did.
Back in London with his parents, Harold knew that London was not where he wanted to be. He wanted to return to Germany and marry Hilda. Several weeks after arriving in London, Harold returned to Munich and got his old job back with Burberry.
After spending another year in Munich with Hilda, Harold took her back to London. Harold’s would agree to accept Hilda on the one condition that she would change her religion to Judaism, which Hilda did.
So it was that Harold and Hilda got married. Harold got a job in the fashion business as a fashion representative and he found a job for Hilda a job as a model in London’s booming fashion business.
Harold’s father said he wanted to buy a house for Harold in Edgeware, a suburb of London. Harold went for the idea, but about a year later Harold’s father changed his mind. It was then that Harold made a big decision. He told his father, “Well Dad, if you change your mind, I’m not going to stay in London—I’m going to move to the United States.”
Harold’s parents were shocked because they wanted him to stay in London.
Encouraged by the fact that Hilda’s sister, Elsie, was living in Ohio and that the British immigration quota was open, Harold and Hilda left for the United States in 1957 on Harold’s old ship, the Queen Mary. Once in New York, they drove immediately to Cleveland to meet up with Elsie. In no time Harold had another job—selling cars in Cleveland.
Harold became a very very good car salesman, and, in 1959, his parents sold their business and followed Harold to the United States.
Once in Cleveland, Harold’s father asked, “Harold, where would you really like to live in the United States?”
Harold answered, “Two places, Dad, one would be Florida and the other would be California.”
As luck would have it the Ballons had some very close Jewish friends in California. They contacted their friends, who were so receptive to the idea that Harold and his parents decided to set off for California.
In Harold’s words, “So we came to California with my mother, my father, me and my wife, and my little daughter, Susan, who was three months old at the time, born in 1959 and she’s now 52. We came on Route 66 from Cleveland, all the way down to California. We arrived in California. It was 1959 and I was 29 years old.”
Harold and his family settled in Reseda, a suburb of Los Angeles. In no time, Harold was back to selling cars, and Hilda got a job in the fashion business in downtown Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, Harold’s father was so anxious to go into business that he got involved with a con artist and lost thirty thousand dollars—his life’s savings. This finished Jack Ballon’s thoughts of going into business. Luckily, the con artist was caught at a race track in Florida and was brought back to Los Angeles. The con artist was tried and sentenced to ten years of probation for ten years and ordered to pay Harold’s father $100 a month for ten years. So Harold’s father got part of his money back.
Still, Harold could see that his father no longer had the capital or the will to go into business again.
In 1962 Harold and Hilda divorced, and Harold was lonely—but not for long.
That same year, he met a wonderful young lady, Oriela, who was from Chili. She was a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Oriela moved in with Harold and soon they were married, and had two beautiful sons, David and Danny, who are now 44 and 46 years old, respectively. Harold’s daughter Susan Ballon, from his first marriage, is now 52 years old.
Harold settled down and stayed with the car business for about five years until 1966 when he was 36 years old. Then, Harold jumped back into the fashion business where he worked from 1966 through 1979.
In 1980, Harold made another career change and jumping from the fashion business to a job as Finance Director at Barish Chrysler in Los Angeles where he stayed for about 15 years until Barish Chrysler went out of business.
At this point, Harold decided to move to San Diego, California with his wife, his two sons, and his mother, his father having passed away in 1982.
Harold was semi retired when he arrived in San Diego. Since he still had a few bucks in the bank, and entered into a detail business in Escondido, California, which unfortunately failed.
On December 12, 2006, not feeling well, Harold went to the Scripps Clinic Satellite Office in Rancho Bernardo to see Dr. Jeffrey Andrey. Harold, a very active person and avid fisherman, was worried over his loss of energy during the summer accompanied with a mild anemia.
Earlier that year, in July, a cardiologist had pronounced Harold fit, leaving his generalized fatigue unexplained. The only medical problem that Harold had faced so far was a routine right hip replacement in 1995.
Harold’s visit to Dr. Andrey did not seem to indicate anything serious—initially.
Of the visit, Dr. Andrey, wrote, “He impressed me with the detailed dates and intricacies of the history of his present condition that his primary physician had attributed to hyperglycemia and relatively lax control of hypertension.”
After his examination, Dr. Andrey concluded that Harold did have what appeared to be a problem, either a chronic leukemia or a problem with his spleen—both easily manageable. He asked Harold to have a blood count test.
Dr. Andrey wrote, “He summarized his exit instructions as he was wont to do, making sure he had the sequence correct with his customary panache. ‘Labs today, you'll look at the blood, I'll call you tomorrow, an appointment in two weeks, thank you, Jeffrey, and God Bless...’ I hesitated to characterize our encounter as ‘delightful’ which is medical-ese for ‘kookie, eccentric, and difficult in a bad way’ but rather energetic and engaging and I was pleased to have met this affable, youthful-mannered gentleman, realizing firsthand how successful he must have been as fashion buyer.
“After completing my dictations of my afternoon patients, I ambled over to the lab to look at the blood film expecting a relatively bland review.”
Instead, the lab report showed that Harold had a very serious condition, known as acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
On reading the report, Dr. Andrey wrote, “Unfortunately this suggested an acute myelogenous leukemia or at the very best, an advanced myelodysplastic syndrome either of which would have to be immediately addressed. I had wondered why physicians rarely convey what they are thinking to patients even if they are 90% sure as I was that this would prove to be a slow moving condition. I realized that it is the 180 degree course adjustment from a simple problem to a life-threatening one is so much more difficult to process for both. I phoned Mr. Ballon with a revised assessment and as delicately as I manage, asked him to come in to the hospital that evening so that my colleagues on the inpatient service could perform a bone marrow biopsy in the morning and hydrate him overnight in preparation for induction chemotherapy. I apologized for unintentionally misleading him.
“He took the news much better than I would have expected. He had his lovely wife pack his things and he presented to Scripps Green Hospital for admission.
“Mr. Ballon attacked his leukemia from the outset with a very clear head and great capacity for detail—knowing exactly when each dose of idarubicin was supposed to start and when each bag of cytarabine was to complete. During his first recovery week after chemotherapy he coped with the nausea and anorexia well.”
Dr. Andrey pointed out that Harold’s condition required very high doses of a drug, cytarabine, “that only younger patients can tolerate.”
“I explained this to Mr. Ballon that even a ‘good’ AML only projects to a 5-10% five year survival in his age group, but that his was the best of a bad bunch, and that we would have to see what his bone marrow biopsy at the point of recovery would show.
“He digested this and declared ‘I'm in His hands and your hands. Jeffrey, if there is any chance at all, I'd like to try for it.’ At least the induction phase was straight forward, he would either be or not be in remission when his peripheral blood counts recovered.”
Harold was able to leave the clinic and go home after twenty-two days of treatment with “normal peripheral blood counts and an unexpectedly smooth course through therapy.”
Later Dr. Andrey repeated the bone marrow biopsy which showed that Harold had “achieved a remission.” Harold had responded successfully to chemotherapy!
In Dr. Andrey’s words, “As I recall, he cried out of relief of not having to leave his wife sooner than he had hoped in his own words. Getting into remission was the relatively easy part. Staying there is a completely different story.
“The vast majority of patients who enter remission will relapse unless additional ‘consolidation’ chemotherapy is given. A younger patient at this point would receive six doses of ‘high-dose cytarabine’ in four ‘cycles’ given one month apart. Patients older than 55 suffer an unacceptably high rate of cerebellar degeneration related to the cytarabine.
“A European Study reported the use of ‘intermediate dose cytarabinc’ in consolidation at one half of the usual dose and reported a good safety profile, so this is the blueprint Mr. Ballon and I agreed to follow.
“He received his first course in February and his fourth course in May 2007.
“Again, fortune smiled upon him as he never developed a fever or other side effect of the chemotherapy. He went home after six days each cycle, recovered his counts on schedule and was always physically and mentally ready for the next round. I repeated the marrow after his fourth cycle and confirmed that he was still in remission. I was cautiously optimistic, but I had been wrong about his case in the beginning.
“It was then that he propositioned me with the idea of writing a chapter on this phase of his life for a larger volume. I replied that I was happy that he had exceeded any reasonable expectation for his outcome so far, but I wanted to see if his good fortune would last. I must confess that I may never have directly conveyed the dismal 10% 2¬-year survival of patients in his age group with any form or AML ‘good or bad.’ I wasn't sure how he would react to the number.
“Mr. Ballon knew that between the lines I was skeptical that his remission would last. I promised that I would write his chapter if he remained in remission at one year post consolidation. He accepted that condition and presented me a ballpoint pen with ‘Let Hal be your Pal’ engraved on the body.
“As I write this small chapter of a much larger happier life of Mr. Harold Ballon I have to emphasize, for as much my benefit as anyone's, that this was an exceptional outcome. My crustier instructors in medicine would argue that nobody ever learned anything from one patient's experience. Certainly, one has to individualize cancer and leukemia treatment to the physical and mental fitness of each patient. The survivors of leukemia are all fighters, and they all, like Hal, draw strength from some wellspring to sustain them in that fight.
“Whether this strength is faith or family, no one can fight leukemia for them. It is inspirational to nurture this fortitude which is a cornerstone of our specialty in cancer medicine and I have always considered it my great privilege to interact with these special people who are my heroes.”
In February 1995, Harold had a total right hip replacement due osteoarthritis.
In December 2006 at the age of 76, Harold had his fight with leukemia, which he won.
In September 2007, at the age of 77 Harold had a total replacement of his left hip. The operation was a success. Three months after the operation, Harold was over the effects and the hip replacement surgery and back to his usual active routine.
In 2008, Harold was beginning to have problems with his right hip replacement. He was operated on in October of that year, and, as before, the operation went well and Harold was able to return to his very active life.
For the last 15 years, Harold has been General Sales Manager for a gentleman owns a small chain of luggage stores. Due to the current economy business has been very bad month to month. So far the owner is just hanging in there, but who knows how long he can last.
At 81, the indefatigable Harold Ballon, having survived three hip replacements and a case of life-threatening leukemia, is still on the job—selling suitcases.
Harold has been a hero all his life.