Chris Vowels spent his police career stopping speeders, educating students on the dangers of drugs and gang violence and talking people out of crisis situations.
But for the past 1 1/2 years, the retired Richland sergeant’s lone adversary has been his body.
Vowels, 63, is battling severe aplastic anemia — a rare disease in which bone marrow does not make enough blood cells.
He’s been in and out of hospitals countless times for transfusions and infections. He is limited to his interaction with loved ones, especially his wife of 43 years and their four grandkids. He has learned to wear a mask over his mouth, and avoid crowds and all fresh fruits and vegetables.
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It has been a serious lifestyle change for the Richland native, but he’s not going through the journey alone.
Blood, bone marrow and platelet drives have drawn overwhelming numbers, and a GoFundMe account started a little over two weeks ago by Vowels’ niece already has raised $11,200 of the $20,000 goal.
Vowels says it’s been humbling to see the local response to his personal crisis. However, the support network extends outside the Tri-Cities, including one stranger he may never meet.
He was notified in late February that a marrow donor who lives in the United States had been found after just two weeks and three days.
Last week, he traveled to Seattle with his oldest daughter, Kendra Kinlock, to start preparing for a tentatively scheduled April 5 bone marrow transplant. That will be followed by a 100-day crucial recovery period, during which his body will have to make healthy blood cells and ward off any potential infections that could sideline the process.
Vowels recognizes his mortality and says he is at peace with whatever happens, but it doesn’t mean he is giving up the fight.
“It’s definitely not the way I choose to live my life, but we’re making it happen,” said Vowels, who owns Columbia Kayak Adventures with his wife, Dorothy. “I think God has a purpose for what I’m doing, and I have a pretty positive attitude most of the time.”
Vowels feels fortunate he found a match — actually four potential matches — in such a short time, considering some of the approximately 14,000 people searching for a lifesaving match never get an unrelated donor who might cure them of their disease or cancer.
That’s why even as he awaits his transplant at the UW Medical Center, Vowels wants to continue drawing awareness to the need for others.
A bone marrow and blood drive is planned from noon to 6 p.m. March 31 in the activity room at the Richland Community Center, 500 Amon Park Drive. The event will be handled by the American Red Cross and Be The Match.
People who are healthy, between 18 and 44, and want to register as a bone marrow/stem cell donor can do it at join.bethematch.org/hope4sarge or join.bethematch.org/hopeforsarge. A swab kit will be mailed to their home with instructions and a confirmation.
“Getting the awareness out there, it’s a commitment to itself,” said Vowels’ middle daughter, Leslie Brock.
She is a learning management specialist in Kadlec’s education department who has used her training and experience to help coordinate events for her dad.
“He’s a trooper. I’m amazed by his strength and perseverance,” Brock said. “It’s a nasty, nasty disease that literally takes you away from family. … It takes a strong person to face this every minute of the day.”
BONE MARROW SHUTTING DOWN
Vowels joined the Richland Police Department in 1982. Over the next quarter-century, he worked as a DARE officer, patrol officer, motorcycle officer, traffic unit sergeant, crisis negotiator with the SWAT unit, first aid instructor and field training officer.
He was named officer of the year by the Tri-Cities Exchange Club in 1988, said Capt. Mike Cobb.
“During his tenure with Richland, he was always that officer that everybody looked up to,” Cobb said. “You could tell a new employee, ‘If you want to do this right, you can look at Chris Vowels.’ ”
Vowels has left a huge imprint on the community, in addition to being a steadfast friend to Cobb and his wife and a mentor to their son, Jeffrey Cobb, a Pasco police officer.
“When you say, ‘Who are some of the finest human beings?’ you know Chris’ name is on that list,” said Cobb, who’s trying to juggle his schedule so he can travel to Seattle to support Vowels.
“This bone marrow transplant — you have to have the confidence that this will be the piece that finally gets him through.”
A couple of years after his retirement, Dorothy and Chris Vowels bought the kayak shop next to Howard Amon Park. Chris Vowels also spent his time as a trainer and inspector in the ropes course and zip line industry with a Portland company.
Then in the fall of 2015, Vowels felt worn down, but attributed it to everyone having the flu around him. In hindsight, he realizes his symptoms actually set in two to three months before that.
He was a very active person who thought that maybe he just was getting older and needed to cut back on climbing and kayaking.
What he didn’t yet know was that his bone marrow was shutting down.
LEARNED THE SYMPTOMS
There are three major blood lines for the body to function: platelets to control bleeding, red blood cells to carry oxygen and white blood cells to fight infection. His went one at a time — platelets, then red blood cells and finally white blood cells.
About 600 to 900 people in the United States are diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia each year.
Vowels’ levels were critically low and even surprised doctors when he was diagnosed in November 2015. He started treatment and had to get frequent transfusions, including platelets every four to six days and red blood cells every seven to 12 days.
He’s learned the symptoms to know when his numbers are declining, like difficulty breathing while walking around the block or tiny red spots on his skin.
He doesn’t get to spend much time with his 2 1/2 -year-old grandson because he is a “petri dish” of germs, and his wife has had her own medical issues that have forced the couple to be apart on occasion.
Kinlock said her mother will join them in Seattle at some point, but it is easier for her and and Brock at this point to take care of dad’s needs while he’s at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The Vowels have a third daughter, Jessica, who also is helping, as well as Vowels’ brother and other relatives and friends.
He can’t come home until at least mid-July.
They moved into a two-bed, two-bath furnished apartment at the Pete Gross House, which is filled with other families going through the same experience and provides shuttles to the nearby Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Kinlock said. It costs $90 a night, which will come out of the GoFundMe account, along with parking and groceries.
“We’re super grateful. It’s been very humbling, but at the same time very reassuring. I can go up here (to Seattle) and don’t have to worry” about dad’s financial needs or the family back home, she said.
Vowels said it “would be really cool” to meet his donor eventually, but added that there is a one-year waiting period before postcards are sent out to the donor and the recipient, with five optional levels of contact.
No matter what, he will forever have a connection to the donor, as he will take on his/her O-plus blood type and a part of their medical history, like if they’ve ever had viral infections such as measles or mumps.
Erin Casch said she established the online fundraising campaign for her uncle to remove any awkwardness with the immediate family asking for help.
The West Richland woman, who practically grew up at the Vowels home, said she really hasn’t had to do much to get the word out because her uncle had such an impact on the lives of so many people.
“It’s crazy and it’s awesome, the response that has come out of it,” Casch said.
The family is keeping people updated on Vowels’ progress with a Facebook group page. A Meal Train also has been set up to help those family members who are holding down the fort in the Tri-Cities, especially while Kinlock and Brock swap duties as primary caregivers for their dad in Seattle.