Her official classification is ’11.2,’ but to friends and family, and now the rest of the world, she is Stacy Erholtz. And for over one year, she has become a medical miracle.
In May 2004, Erholtz received the news many dread – and far too many receive – she had cancer. After months of feeling ill, doctors at Essentia Health in Brainerd diagnosed Erholtz with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma residing in bone marrow, as well as a rare protein disorder called amyloidosis. Her world was changed in an instant and Brainerd physicians recommended she visit the Mayo Clinic for treatment options.
Erholtz’s blood counts were out of control and required immediate action, which came via a combination of steroids and drugs. Once her body was back in check and stable enough to move forward, she was prepped in September 2004 for a stem cell transplant.
For two and a half years, Erholtz was in remission, however the transplant and chemo combo took a toll on her body and it took nearly six months to feel “back to normal.” Until March of 2012, treatments were piecemealed to attempt a state of remission. However, the longer she was being treated, the more advancements were being made in medicine and research to find a cure to cancer. Two years prior, Erholtz and husband, Mike, had watched a news program regarding researchers at the Mayo Clinic doing clinical trials treating cancer patients with the live measles virus. Erholtz was intrigued and inquired with her doctor at Mayo, however was told she wasn’t a valid candidate at the time.
In March 2012, Erholtz came out of remission and in August received her second stem cell transplant. However, after only a few months, Erholtz was back at Mayo facing a resurgence of cancer.
“At that point, I said I wanted to do the measles trial. We had exhausted all other resources and this was my last chance at beating cancer.”
On June 5, 2013, Erholz became Patient 11.2, becoming only the second in the world to receive a massive infusion of the live measles virus. In a half-hour sitting, a four-inch by four-inch bag of fluid was emitted into her body, releasing 100 billion live measles cells into her blood stream – a staggering amount that could essentially vaccinate 10 million individuals.
“When I went in, I told my doctors that I didn’t want it put into relatable terms. It was just too overwhelming.”
Researchers were able to pinpoint that the treatment works optimally in a body with critically low antibodies. However, not long after the transfusion, you could see the virus taking hold of her body. Her body temperature rose to 105 degrees within four hours and she began vomiting, shaking and experienced a headache that still brings a shudder to Erholtz to this day.
“It wasn’t an easy process. It’s a lot like childbirth – joy now replaces the experience. But you choose not to go back there. It was pretty horrific.”
Her body succumbed to the virus and she blacked out until the following day when nothing short of a miracle transpired. Erholtz awoke, fever and pain free and was able to walk out of the hospital, across the street to her hotel.
For several weeks to follow, she was poked and prodded – a literal science experiment. She drank radioactive liquid from a lead cup and underwent scans and tests to watch the measles cells move throughout her body and attack cancer cells.
“It was a very human experience. You really get to know the people working with you and you have the opportunity to make some fun relationships. I was no longer ’11.2.’”
As test results were analyzed by a number of doctors, researchers and scientists, a breakthrough was realized. Erholtz was cancer free. News spread like wildfire and Erholtz and her mother were invited to meet the very individuals who had dedicated their lives and careers to this very trial. She was whisked into elevators at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and taken to the 18th floor.
“It was like a Willy Wonka experience. When the elevators opened to the 18th floor, it was like the Great Reveal.”
Once strangers were now friends; and hugs, laughs and high fives were exchanged amongst those there to meet patient ’11.2’ who was the answer to years of tireless research, prayers and waiting. But the God-moment was yet to come.
“You can see God’s hand through this whole story.”
A plaque was hung in the hallway of the research lab in honor of the primary benefactors’ dedication in supporting the lab. Erholtz’s doctor asked if she would be willing to stand in front of the plaque for a quick photo. Eager to oblige, Erholtz approached the wall where the plaque hung and stopped in her tracks. The plaque recognized donors Al and Mary Agnes McQuinn, parents of one of Erholtz’s dear friends who had been killed in a car crash nearly one year prior. The very next day, Erholtz called Mary Agnes McQuinn and introduced herself as patient 11.2.
“They never expected to see tangible fruits of their giving, not to mention someone who knew their son, Charles. Our paths had crossed time and again. What an amazing gift. Everything had come full circle.”
Grateful for the time on earth she has been provided because of the generosity of a family, the intelligence and dedication of scientists, and the Grace of God; Erholtz wanted to step forward and do something to expedite the production of the measles virus so others could experience the same miracle of medicine. In June 2014, Erholtz started a fund with the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation and wants to be the catalyst to raise the necessary funds to remove the bottleneck that exists in manufacturing.
“This could potentially be the cure to cancer. And it’s not just about me. If we can start treating cancer with measles, let’s do it and remove all barriers in the process. I want a whole community of friends who have experienced what I have. We need to accept there is cancer in this world. Let’s embrace that and find the least invasive treatment possible. You don’t have to shut your whole life down to beat cancer.”
Since Erholtz’s story went viral, she has received international notoriety; gaining attention from major media outlets and sending her number of Facebook followers through the roof. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are currently 350 individuals on the waiting list to participate in the measles virus treatment, with thousands more inquiries withstanding.
“This has been a situation where time, talent and treasure have collided. The doctors and researchers shared their talent. The McQuinn family had the treasure. And because of that, God has gifted me so much extra time here on earth. And that is nothing short of a miracle.”
“In this moment, I am cured and that’s how I choose to live. Truth be told, we’re all called to live in the moment; called to serve each other. So look for your gift. What is your gift?”