Partners fight to keep their love alive as one battles leukemia
by David Moore . Q-Notes staff
Wedding in Canada: Wes Thompson (left) and Trey Owen on their wedding day in Canada.
Imagine thinking you have your whole life before you and suddenly you wake up one day to find out that — in all likelihood — you were wrong and you have a lot less time left than you thought.
That description isn’t too far off the mark when Trey Owen talks about his battle with leukemia — and his partner’s valiant efforts to help him pull through it all, despite the odds.
“I was tired all the time,” Owen recalls. “I just thought it was because I was working a lot of overtime. I was working really hard. Eventually my partner Wesley made me go to the doctor and have some blood work done.”
Initially, the results led Owen and his partner Wesley Thompson, at the time a physician’s assistant at the Jemsek Clinic, to believe that Owen was suffering from Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.
“The doctor said for a man my age that’s probably what it was — nothing too serious that couldn’t be managed.”
As fate would have it — that was not the case. Owen was ill with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a much more serious type of the disease that normally effects children.
“I had two genetic characteristics that made mine exceptionally virulent,” he recalls. “If I had not gone to the doctor I would have died in my sleep — essentially bleeding to death internally.”
Fortunately for Owen, doctors recognized the symptoms very quickly and immediately told him to a pack a bag and head for the hospital.
Thompson and Owen had been together as a couple 19 years at that point. Like many long-term couples, they’d weathered their shares of ups and downs — but nothing like this.
Looking Back: Trey Owen (left) and Wes Thompson shortly after their first meeting in 1986.
When they first met in Chapel Hill back in 1986 they had no way of knowing the path that lay ahead — but it wasn’t long before they realized they wanted to share the journey together.
“I remember when we first met very clearly. I was a senior in college working as an assistant manager at the Gap,” Owen chuckles. These days he’s a full-time program manager for IBM. “Wesley came in to buy a pair of black jeans. At the time he was in the physician’s assistant program and he was a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”
Thompson recalls his version of events: “He was there, toiling over paperwork — I thought he was so cute. At first I thought he was scowling, but then he looked up at me and broke into this big smile. I was with a straight friend and we left — but I went right back and asked him out for dinner and drinks. He met me later that night at a restaurant called Another Thyme — and after that I invited him back to my place for wine.”
Perhaps it sounds a little cliché — but it is fitting — the rest is history. The two men grew together and continued to make their lives together as the 20th century became the 21st century.
All around them the world was changing. Friends passed away. Political parties gained and lost control of the government. Fashion reinvented itself countless times. Technology continued to expand at an unfathomable rate. TV viewers went from watching “Square Pegs” and “Dynasty” to “Survivor” and “American Idol.” The world would be forever changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — while a growing movement towards same-sex marriage was being met with resistance from Republicans and evangelical Christians.
There’s no question that the world has changed dramatically since Thompson and Owen first met on Nov. 18, 1986.
Despite the tumultuous times, their relationship endured.
It’s true that individuals in a long-term relationship sometimes take each other for granted — no couple is immune to that. But when faced with such a life-threatening illness, it was the bond of their many years spent together that gave Thompson the strength to stand by Owen when the going got really rough.
After Owen was ordered to Charlotte’s Presbyterian Hospital, he would spend several weeks there, undergoing the most aggressive kind of chemotherapy available.
“I didn’t get sick,” Owen recalls. “Which was good. But I had this thing called a PICC line. Actually I had a couple — which later led to me getting infected with e-coli. I got blood poisoning and I was in the ICU for about a week. I died and was revived several times.”
Owen confirms that there are long blocks of time during his illness that he has no recollection of.
Thompson, who stayed by his partner’s side throughout the ordeal, remembers everything.
“He was very sick. I’m glad he doesn’t remember. It wasn’t a good time. Emotionally it was quite devastating. They were telling me he’s not going to make it — but I just wouldn’t give up. We stayed there to be with him 18 hours a day sometimes and I called everyone I knew to pray for him. That included friends who were Christian, Jewish and Buddhist. I wanted all the positive energy I could get for him.”
By this time it became obvious that the only way Owen was going to survive his battle was through a bone marrow transplant. Once a donor with the appropriate number of genetic markers was secured, the procedure was set to move forward.
“I went to Duke on July 18 for a total body irradiation,” he explains. “It’s basically getting rid of your old immune system to get you ready for the transplant. They put you in front of an x-ray machine for a half hour, twice a day for a week. It was pretty awful. I was nauseous, weak and I had to have help walking. I was pretty much bed ridden.”
Owen received his bone marrow transplant from a German July 27, 2005. He would continue to struggle against illness and experiencing the side-effects of radiation over the next 75 days that he spent at Duke in a special transplant Reverse Pressure Unit so he would not be exposed to anything that his newly reforming immune system couldn’t handle.
After a long road back, Owen eventually found himself in remission.
“I’m pretty much back to normal, with less stamina,” he says. “I have an intact immune system, but the problem is I haven’t been exposed to anything, so I’ve had to have a number of childhood vaccines again — like the Polio vaccine and I can’t travel anywhere that I have to take malaria medication.”
Currently Owen is considered in remission. After he reaches the five-year mark — he’ll be considered cured.”
To celebrate, the two decided to marry in Vancouver, Canada, on the 20th anniversary of their first date.
“We got married on Nov. 18, 2006, at 7 p.m. It was also the exact hour we met for our first date.
The couple opted for a civil ceremony performed by a marriage commissioner.
“We ended up at a beautiful 1897 Victorian B&B called O Canada House,” Owen recalls. “We had the ceremony in the parlor. The innkeeper and the staff were so gracious and welcoming. It was a wonderful experience. I would certainly encourage people to do it — it means a lot. I feel it’s an additional level of commitment than what we had and an extra level of comfort.”
After a life lived together through struggles and happiness, both men say their outlooks on life have changed much for the better.
“The most important thing is to enjoy each day,” says Thompson. “So often we were living for our paychecks instead of living for life. We’re looking to travel more and enjoy this life more.”
Says Owen: “I was a workaholic before I got sick. Now I’m still very committed to my job, but it doesn’t come first. My life, my time with Wesley are more important. I know things can change in a heartbeat. My doctor called and said pack a bag and my world was totally different. I try to enjoy life as it happens. I don’t wanna wait until I’m retired to do things. You never know when you’re gonna get hit by that proverbial bus.”