Julie and Brian Neitz

Julie and Brian Neitz of Manhattan Beach. Brian was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia June 17, 2019 during a routine physical exam and is seeking a bone marrow donor due to rare genetic makeup that makes finding a match difficult for him. (Photo by Kirsten Farmer)

On the morning of June 17, 2019, Brian Neitz began his day with a mile and half swim.

For the 53-year-old Manhattan Beach resident who serves as a part-time Los Angeles County lifeguard during the summer and a full time pilot with Southwest Airlines, the swim was no problem.

It certainly didn’t seem to be a precursor to news Neitz would receive later that day.

The 28-year veteran of the Air Force Reserves retired from service in 2018 and was set to receive a routine physical exam to claim his VA benefits.

The results of his blood work revealed a shocking diagnosis: Neitz has acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“Your brain just kind of pauses for a second and everything starts happening all at once,” recalled Neitz, a husband and father of two. 

Other than fatigue, he had no other symptoms leading up to the diagnosis. 

“I’m not going to say (I was) overwhelmed, but you’re managing the circumstances...there’s a lot to coordinate,” Neitz added.

The rare and aggressive type of cancer—which accounts for less than 1 percent of all cancers in the United States according to the American Cancer Societyhappens when the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells.

In Neitz's case, the diagnosis warranted a bone marrow transplant.

But, upon comparing his genetic makeup to a database of some 30 million bone marrow donors, doctors were unable to find a match for him, he said.

“Somewhere in my ancestry and my heritage is wacky genes I guess,” Neitz explained, noting he is an only child, which eliminates the possibility of an easy sibling match. 

Although he does have alternative options such as a half match from one of his children or umbilical stem cell transplant which would take much longer to regenerate new marrow, none are as promising as a straight-forward donor match. 

Since his diagnosis, Neitz has undergone six sessions of induction chemotherapy in an effort to minimize the cancer levels and prepare him for a potential transplant.

The next fight

On July 22, day 36 since his diagnosis, he received news that the treatment has been successful thus far.

Neitz is now in the stage of remission required for him to be eligible for the procedure, a level doctors hope to keep him at with consolidation chemo.

But, he is still in need of a donor. 

His wife, Julie, a former teacher and community advocate, has begun organizing bone marrow drives to try and help him find a match.

“The support has been amazing,” Julie said, noting the local community has rallied behind the family. “Our friends have taken the kids to do activities, taken them for overnight, taken them for dinner. It’s been a blessing. We’re trying to keep everything as normal as possible for the kids so they continue their everyday schedule.” 

The outlook for adult patients with this type of leukemia is not well studied due to the rarity of the disease, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, which estimates a 35.5 percent five-year survival rate for men ages 15 to 69. Doctors have yet to give Brian a prognosis.

The family, who have lived in Manhattan Beach for 15 years in the same house Brian grew up in, are no strangers to health challenges.

Their daughter Abbie, now 11, spent several months in the hospital due to a rare case of ulcerative colitis when she was 5 years old. 

“That was maybe more challenging than this,” Brian said. “You lose control in a situation where you want to control and your little girl is asking you when she is getting out of the hospital and you can’t tell her.” 

For the former veteran who was once awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross Award for embarking on a dangerous rescue mission, letting go of control has been a difficult but necessary part of coping with own diagnosis.

“(That’s) the way I’ve been able to stay positive and make peace with this whole thing,” he explained. “Once you make the mental switch that you’re not in control of this, you find the best people who can help and you give them control. Then be the best patient or copilot...”

Brian is taking the diagnosis in stride and counting his blessings.

“The last few years I’ve just been saying thank you for everything I have. This is what I got, it’s the next fight,” he said.  

To register and receive a cheek swab kit by mail to see if you are a match for Brian or others in need of a bone marrow match, visit join.bethematch.org.

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