Two months ago, Stephanie Rothbauer’s world turned completely upside down.
At the time, the 37-year-old mother of three had a relatively normal life. She lived in Paso Robles with her family and worked as an interior designer in San Luis Obispo.
Rothbauer even mentored a Paso Robles third-grader as part of San Luis Obispo County’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program, so well that the organization recognized her as Big Sister of the Year this spring.
But in mid-May, everything changed.
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Rothbauer was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — a form of cancer that originates in a patient’s bone marrow — and began treatment at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto.
“Everything just stopped all at one time,” Rothbauer said. “It’s been really difficult.”
Before her diagnosis, she began having severe headaches and passing out, even suffering from a tongue ulcer at one point.
Rothbauer — who also has multiple sclerosis, a chronic immune system disorder — initially thought her symptoms were related to her existing illness. But when they continued getting worse, she had a blood test that revealed the leukemia.
Rothbauer immediately began undergoing chemotherapy at Stanford, although a bad reaction to the treatment sent her to the intensive care unit for 10 days.
After recovering at home, she is now back in the hospital evaluating her treatment options. Doctors hope Rothbauer can soon receive stem cell therapy to “reboot” her immune system.
But first, Rothbauer needs to find a bone marrow donor who can provide the necessary stem cells. Her three siblings aren’t matches, so Rothbauer is now waiting to see if she can find a donor through the National Marrow Donor Program.
The program relies on volunteers from around the country who register to have their DNA tested with the hope of finding matches for patients in need.
“It’s really opened up our eyes to how important it is for people to become donors,” she said.
Waiting for a donor
Rothbauer said the most difficult part of her treatment is being away from her children: 14-year-old TJ, 12-year-old Brayden and 8-year-old Mia.
Her husband, Tad, has been at the hospital with her throughout her treatment, so relatives have taken turns caring for the children. Rothbauer video-chats with her children every day, but “it’s not the same.”
“This is, like, the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” Rothbauer said.
She’s also continued to communicate with her Little Sister Vanesa, exchanging letters and visiting when she’s home.
“I’ve been doing the best that I can,” Rothbauer said. “It’s been hard on everybody.”
Once Rothbauer receives her stem cell therapy, she’ll have to remain near Stanford for 100 days to receive continued treatment. Her friends have started a Steph’s Army Facebook page to track her progress and a GoFundMe page to raise money for her medical bills.
“To know Steph is to love her,” said Tracey Earl, who runs the Facebook group, in a statement. “Her vibrancy and genuine love of life is present in everything she does. Even during these difficult times, what would cripple many has only displayed her strengths even more.”
Jenny Luciano, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, called Rothbauer a “very, very special volunteer.”
“Stephanie is a beautiful, strong, and capable woman who volunteers scarce personal time to her Little Sister to provide her with a role model that can guide her along a positive life path,” Luciano said in a statement.
Rothbauer hopes those who register with the National Marrow Donor Program will help others find a match, even if she isn’t able to.
“I’m just one person,” she said. “There are so many people out there who are fighting for their lives, too.”