Chris Vowels came home Tuesday.
After spending six months in and out of a Seattle hospital for various treatments, the 64-year-old retired Richland police sergeant got a special escort into the Tri-Cities.
It wasn’t the type of homecoming Vowels and his family envisioned when they started his journey, battling severe aplastic anemia and all the complications that come with the rare disease.
But they said they felt wrapped in love as their personal motorcade of four cars and an ambulance was joined by law enforcement, veterans and friends for the final 21 miles of their road trip to The Hospice House in Kennewick.
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Their last 48 hours at the UW Medical Center were rough, with doctors on Monday night giving Vowels hours to live. But he pushed on, trying to stay alert as long as possible so he could see family back in the Tri-Cities.
“Then, he’s ready to go home to Jesus,” said daughter Leslie Brock.
Vowels was diagnosed in October 2015 with the disease in which bone marrow does not make enough blood cells. Family members have documented his fight on a Facebook group page.
The owner of Columbia Kayak Adventures and an active outdoorsman went through a serious lifestyle change as he dealt with countless transfusions and infections. Then, in late February, he got word that a marrow donor had been found.
On March 14, Vowels and his oldest daughter, Kendra Kinlock, traveled to Seattle to start preparing for his transplant. While awaiting the procedure, the donor was disqualified for medical issues and Vowels was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
It then came down to Vowels’ family, and daughters Brock and Kinlock were found to be the best matches and the same blood type. When they couldn’t decide who would do it, their father flipped a coin and Brock won three flips in a row to be his donor.
The May 22 transplant was successful, and Vowels enjoyed a wonderful month with near-normal platelet and cell counts.
Brock said the family, which stayed in an apartment at the Pete Gross House, was able to do outdoor activities like going to the zoo. A GoFundMe account set up by Vowels’ niece, Erin Casch, has helped cover the medical and living expenses.
But the crucial recovery period extends to 100 days, when the body must make healthy blood cells and ward off potential infections.
On day 59, Vowels developed a rash and the next day doctors discovered a complication involving the donor’s immune cells mistakenly attacking the patient’s normal cells.
Brock said about three weeks ago her dad “hit a wall” and got an aggressive fungal infection that was near his brain, affecting his eyesight and speech. That, coupled with bacterial infections, led to them to realize there was nothing more that could be done medically.
“He has been fighting this good fight for a long time,” Brock said.
It’s kind of a weird relief for us. We’re bringing him home with us, at least. I drove him up March 14, and I’m getting to bring my dad home with me. It’s not exactly the way I wanted it, but he’s coming home.
Kendra Kinlock, daughter
“It’s kind of a weird relief for us. We’re bringing him home with us, at least,” added Kinlock. “I drove him up March 14, and I’m getting to bring my dad home with me. It’s not exactly the way I wanted it, but he’s coming home.”
It gave their dad peace and comfort knowing he could return to the Tri-Cities, instead of dying in a Seattle hospital.
Vowels told the Herald in March that “God has a purpose for what I’m doing, and I have a pretty positive attitude most of the time.”
On Tuesday, Brock said her dad has maintained that attitude. Even as he’s gone through painful times, he’s continued to encourage and inspire others and speak positive because he is God’s vessel.
She joked that during the more than four-hour drive Tuesday, Vowels probably chatted frequently with the two American Medical Response paramedics so “he can leave his mark to that last breath.”
Both Kinlock and Brock said it was pretty cool how the community stepped in to help them, especially once they heard he was coming home. From the people who cleaned the daughters’ homes and helped make meals for their spouses and kids, to the first responders who wanted to honor the former motorcycle officer.
Benton County Fire District 2 positioned a fire engine and ambulance at the Yakitat Road overpass to honor the procession.
A couple patrol cars and several vehicles joined in at Benton City. As they started down Highway 395 past the Washington State Patrol office, five motorcycles and a number of patrol vehicles pulled in front of the motorcade.
And as the procession turned onto Yelm Street toward Chaplaincy Health Care’s Hospice House, officers stopped traffic and saluted.
Brock said even though her father is humble and didn’t want all the fuss for his homecoming, he was appreciative and even laughed that his buddies would do it for him.
“We’re like the proudest daughters and wife we could be,” said Brock. Also part of their caravan was their mother, Dorothy Vowels, and youngest sister Jessica. “It just shows him how much he is really loved by everybody. His spirit is just a light.”