A Meaningful Life
by Eric Drew

magine your doctor informs you that you are very sick and could die in the next few days. How would you feel if, after consulting dozens of top doctors, every major medical center in the United States confirms that you are 100 percent terminal and that nothing can be done?

Allow yourself to consider this situation. Looking at your life, would you have any regrets? Have you lived a meaningful life that will leave a legacy for a better world? Have you improved the human condition, decreased suffering, or simply spread more love and positive energy than negativity, fear and pain? Have you given more than you have taken?

These are profound questions, ones which would facilitate a much better existence for all of us if we were to ask them of ourselves from time to time, before we are inevitably faced with our own mortality.

From an early age I felt a strong sense of purpose, a sense that my life had a deeper meaning and would leave a positive impact beyond simply the sum of my own personal experiences. As an adopted child, I remember my amazing parents telling me that they picked me, in part, because they had a feeling that I was meant to do something great.

Throughout most of my young life, I thought of this destiny in a future context. If and when I was financially successful, I told myself, I would become a philanthropist or serve my country as a congressman, senator, or maybe even president. I saw myself as a spiritual warrior in search of a cause. As fate happens, my cause came to me in the most unexpected way, when my charmed life turned into the worst imaginable nightmare.

It was the fall of 2002. I was 35 years old, in the prime of my life. I had returned to Silicon Valley after several years working in Europe. I was successful in my career and in the best physical shape of my life.

Then, during a monthly blood donation at the Red Cross in early December, the nurse noticed an irregularity. I hadn’t been feeling well for about a month — fatigued, out of breath and run down. Throughout the next few days I was referred to a blood specialist, who pulled a sample of bone marrow (quite painfully) from my hip, and the next day my mother went with me to get the results.

When the doctor entered the exam room, he had his back toward us. As he slowly turned around, I could see tears running down his cheeks. His voice cracked as he said quietly, “This is the hardest part of my job.” He then sat next to me, put his hand on my knee and gathered himself. “Son, you are in for the fight of your life.”

My heart sank as my mother’s grip tightened on my left hand. “You have acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of your blood, bone marrow and immune system. It is stage four, and I need you to check into Stanford Medical Center tomorrow morning for emergency chemotherapy treatment.”

My head was spinning. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Slow down. I can’t be that sick. I want to get a second opinion and evaluate my options.”

Quickly he responded, “You don’t understand. Your bone marrow is almost 100 percent cancerous. Your body is no longer producing blood cells. If you don’t start treatment immediately, you may not live the next four or five days. I recommend you go home now, get your affairs in order, pack a small bag with comfortable clothes, and they will be waiting for you at Stanford at 8 a.m.”

It was quite apparent from his solemn tone that my chances of living through this were slim. From his perspective, he had just given someone in the prime of their life a death sentence.

The shock and the depth of loss one experiences in this situation is unimaginable if you haven’t lived it. My career, my titles, my dreams and aspirations, even my identity as a person — all were gone in a lightning strike.

Meaningful Life
Some consolation — at least I thought at the time — was that I was in the United States, with the most advanced medicine and doctors. Surely I could count on them to be on my team and do what was in my best interest. I thought of doctors like first responders, in that their primary agenda was saving my life. I was going to one of the top medical centers in the world, and there must be a globally-recognized, optimal treatment for my condition, one proven to give me the best possible chance at beating this disease.

How wrong I was!

The next day my education in the inadequacies of our medical system began. After checking in, the doctors handed me two thick binders full of chemical equations and scientific language. They told me that these were the most aggressive clinical trial treatments that they had to offer and said I had to choose one.

I thought they had to be kidding. Wasn’t it their job to figure out what was best for me? How could they expect a patient with zero medical background to make life-and-death decisions regarding their own care? I asked if there was an independent advocate or organization that could help me weigh my options. But besides an emotional support group that met once a month, there was nothing.

A few days into treatment I was given a medication that caused a severe reaction and cardiac arrest. Later I learned that I had been given an older drug known for bad side effects, when a newer and much safer — but more expensive — drug had been available. Because of pre-arranged contracts with pharma and insurance companies, older cheaper drugs are often tried first. This was the first of many hard lessons about the numerous corporate and institutional agendas at play in the medical system that conflict with what is best for the patient.

Throughout the next few months I was given lethal levels of chemotherapy, which required weeks in the hospital and caused extreme pain and permanent irreparable damage to my body. During these agonizing treatments, I met many patients who were dying simply because their treatments weren’t effective, and nobody was lifting a finger to help them find solutions.

Meaningful Life
I came close to dying several times as a result of medication mismanagement. It was during one of these near-death experiences that I had an epiphany, and my destiny materialized. I needed to fight and survive to champion a movement for change. I would dedicate my life to making medicine about patients again, about their longevity and quality of life first and foremost, above all the other agendas that now take precedence.

After nine months of treatment at Stanford, I was told nothing else could be done and was referred to hospice care. I went into despair, but quickly regained my will to fight. Miraculously, I had a half sister who worked at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. She got me into an experimental transplant program and offered to be the donor. I spent nearly a year in Seattle and underwent two bone marrow transplants and dozens of toxic radiation and chemo treatments. These failed to produce remission, and again I was referred to hospice care. I consulted every hospital with a cancer center in the U.S., but each one said nothing could be done.

It was time to change my strategy and look outside the U.S. I contacted the top doctors in Europe and Asia in an attempt to crowdsource a solution. Incredibly, within weeks I found the treatment I should have had from the beginning but that was not, at that time, available in the U.S.: a stem cell transplant using the umbilical cords of newborn babies. The European doctors found a set of stem cells that had been frozen for eight years in a small basement in Milan, Italy. The University of Minnesota agreed to try the experimental procedure, and the cells were hand-carried from Milan to Minneapolis, where I became one of the first adults in the world to have this procedure. Obviously, it was a success.
We Heal
It has been 16 years since my Silicon Valley community helped me start a foundation to save my life and advocate for other patients in need, now called The WeHeal Foundation. We have saved thousands of lives and given hope to countless people around the world. We have launched dozens of amazing patient programs, always keeping sight of our original mission: to create a world where every patient has an advocate. Now it’s time to create sustainable global change, and we have built a CrowdHealing platform at www.WeHeal.org focused on finding the optimal treatment for each patient.
To access patient advocate services, please visit www.WeHeal.org and click on the “Free Treatment and Clinical Trial Search” link on the home page.
A critical need remains to address the breakdown in our medical systems globally, and especially in the U.S. There is a disconnect between what treatments exist and what treatments patients are actually receiving. This is largely due to the way financial incentives are structured. For example, individual medical professionals, clinics and hospitals have no financial incentive to investigate all treatment options and determine which is the best possible course of action for each patient when it would likely be at a different medical facility. However, we know that every patient is different, and a custom individualized assessment like this is necessary if a patient is to receive optimal treatment. This creates a conflict of interest between the patient’s agenda and the medical system’s agenda, and this conflict is one of the main reasons the U.S. ranks 38th in the world for medical outcomes according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Medicine should be a collaborative project involving all of human society, and I for one will continue to strive for the CrowdHealing solution until each and every medical patient on this planet can rest easy knowing that human society has their back, that we all have each other’s back, and that we are getting the best medicine the world has to offer.

Life has a funny way of turning the tables in unexpected ways. By definition, the phrase generally indicates a reversal of fortune in your favor, especially by turning a disadvantage into an advantage. In my case, a devastating circumstance ultimately revealed my life’s mission, but to achieve my purpose it required navigating a nearly impossible path, one laden with despair, determination and, ultimately, hope.

Eric Drew

Eric Drew is an internationally recognized speaker, writer, spokesperson and medical advocate. He is the Founder and Chairman of The WeHeal Foundation and the global CrowdHealing project. He is a stem cell transplant survivor, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor. Drew dedicates his energies to striving for sustainable change for a higher quality of medicine and quality of life for all!


Eric Drew is an internationally recognized speaker, writer, spokesperson and medical advocate. He is the Founder and Chairman of The WeHeal Foundation and the global CrowdHealing project. He is a stem cell transplant survivor, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor. Drew dedicates his energies to striving for sustainable change for a higher quality of medicine and quality of life for all!