Jackie Latka, 52

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In December of 2011, Jackie Latka’s life changed, as she was diagnosed with systemic diffuse scleroderma.

At the appointment, her doctor asked if she knew what scleroderma was. And surprisingly, Jackie said yes. She loved to watch Lifetime, and she had seen the movie about Bob Saget’s sister, who died of the disease. So, with that, Jackie already knew more about scleroderma than most people in her position.

“For the first six months, I did alright,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can kick this disease to the curb, get involved and keep moving on with life.’”

But unfortunately, the next year wasn’t as good to her.

“This disease began to take over my body,” she said. “It seems cliché to say, but tasks I took for granted were now difficult to complete.” Tasks like eating, walking, going up and down stairs, brushing her teeth, tying her child’s shoes, opening a lid, and holding a cup. “I continued to push myself, but these things were challenging and painful.”

The following fall, Jackie started experiencing another symptom: shortness of breath. She was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease and pulmonary hypertension, which only worsened with time. What followed was Raynaud’s syndrome, decreased mobility, extreme weight loss, an oxygen tank, and eventually… a wheelchair.

“I needed help with everything I did in life,” she said. “I asked my doctors what was next… and they had no answer.”

Determined to be her own biggest advocate, Jackie decided to see Dr. Maureen Mayes, a scleroderma doctor she had heard great things about. Within the first 15 minutes of their visit, Dr. Mayes told Jackie she needed an autologous stem cell transplant – sending her to MD Anderson in Houston, Texas.

On December 19, 2013, Jackie received seven million harvested stem cells. But unfortunately, the road to recovery was long and winding. Soon after the transplant, she suffered from aspergillus pneumonia, which set back progress and sent her to the ICU. However, with the hard work Jackie was accustomed to, she was able to get out of the bed. Then walk to the end of it. Then walk to the bathroom. Then through the halls. And then, finally, walk out of the hospital – discharged on January 17, 2014.

Now, Jackie is five years post-transplant, and she’s proud of making both big steps and baby steps. Plus choosing to see the positive side – developing a deeper appreciation for her faith and her family.

“This disease has brought me so many things and taken so many things,” she said. “But for now, I have taken my life back from scleroderma.”