A Soil Microbe Saved My Life

Before my first chemotherapy appointment, I read that some people taste the drugs as they are being injected. But all I could taste was the saline the nurse used to flush out the IV line. It tasted like I was swimming in saltwater and getting some up my nose.

Sitting there with tubes coming out of my arm being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma felt like I was having a bad dream. Like most 24 year-olds, I thought I knew a lot about the world. But I had no idea that soil bacteria would essentially save my life.

The Red Devil

The author after her first chemotherapy treatment.
The author after her first chemotherapy treatment.

The drugs I received dripped down from clear bags hung from a metal pole, except for one. It was bright ruby red — Kool-Aid red — and instead of being administered with an IV drip like the rest, this one had to be injected with a syringe, “pushed” into my veins, as the nurses described it.

“Is it dye?” I asked the nurse. “No, it just looks like that,” she responded as the red liquid flowed into my arm.

“Do you know how its made or where it comes from?” I asked her. She shrugged and admitted she didnt.

Chemo left me in a glassy-eyed haze that required a three-hour nap, but when I came out of it I started reading. I learned that the drug is called doxorubicin. More evocatively, it’s also called the red devil — and not just because of its color. Hair loss, mouth sores and nausea are some of its many side effects. It also blisters the skin, so it must be handled carefully. I discovered that the drug was derived from a strain of soil bacteria found in the late 1950s in the dirt outside of a 13th century castle in Italy. Not only that, I learned that the bleomycin I was taking was derived from bacteria,…

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