Thursday, December 20, 2012

Former Roanoke doctor starts to heal after stem-cell transplant

Former pain specialist Cecil Knox of Roanoke likes to joke about the new genes he carries. His wife has written a memoir about him.

Cecil Knox chats while his daughter, Kirstyn, 26, and her boyfriend prepare a meal after decorating for Christmas. Knox lived for a decade with lymphoma that required him to have frequent blood transfusions. He was treated in the spring with cells from the umbilical cords of two newborn girls.

Photos by Rebecca Barnett | The Roanoke Times

Cecil Knox chats while his daughter, Kirstyn, 26, and her boyfriend prepare a meal after decorating for Christmas. Knox lived for a decade with lymphoma that required him to have frequent blood transfusions. He was treated in the spring with cells from the umbilical cords of two newborn girls.

Cecil Knox of Roanoke County helps his daughter, Kirstyn (left) of Boston, Mass., and wife, Donna, decorate their Christmas tree in November. Knox underwent a stem-cell transplant in April. He is at home and slowly recovering.

Cecil Knox of Roanoke County helps his daughter, Kirstyn (left) of Boston, Mass., and wife, Donna, decorate their Christmas tree in November. Knox underwent a stem-cell transplant in April. He is at home and slowly recovering.

Whatever happened to...?

Looking back

Correction (Dec. 20, 2012: 5:50 p.m.): This column has been updated to correct the size of the Knoxes' home and to clarify the circumstances under which he pleaded guilty. | Our corrections policy


You'll have to forgive Dr. Cecil Knox when he jokes these days about having a major identity crisis. Is he Caucasian? Or biracial? Is he male or female? Or something in between?

And what does that make his son Dru or daughter Kirstyn Is his marriage to his wife, family law attorney Donna Knox, still legal in Virginia? A lot is unclear. Knox's ability to joke about it is the important thing.

This time last year, Knox, 63, was transfusion dependent, after a decade of treatment for lymphoma that more or less destroyed his blood cell-producing bone marrow. When I last wrote about him in April, it was 26 days after his stem-cell transplant at the University of Virginia, an operation that had a 1 in 4 chance of killing him.

Doctors there beamed him with intense radiation to kill off every last vestige of his own immune system. Then they infused Knox with stem cells garnered from the umbilical-cord blood of two newborn girls. One is black, the other is white.

Those little girls' genes are now part of Knox — hence the jokes about sex and race. But he truly does feel a little more like a new person every day, and I've witnessed that in the intervening months.

Knox was at a picnic I attended July 4, not long after his release from the hospital. He was thin and pale and seemed frail. That night, he checked back into the hospital, with a life-threatening infection of the lining around his heart.

One day in August, we met for breakfast but he had a scant appetite, and he still looked a lot like an inmate who'd been released from a concentration camp — he's down 70 pounds from his top weight, pre-transplant. A familial tremor prevented him from getting much breakfast in his mouth.

In October, we went to a football game together and he seemed much better. He had no problems walking a mile back to the car after the game.

Then I spent an evening with him and Donna earlier this month, and his improvement seemed remarkable. For the first time in months, he had a head full of medium brown hair — not a bit of gray. Donna Knox said it's his third hair color since he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma a decade ago. It had been golden blond.

For the first time in months that night, I saw him finish a meal rather than pick at his food and leave most of it on his plate.

"He's eating now," Donna Knox said. "He just isn't gaining any weight. He's raiding the closets for Dru's leftover clothes."

"With these stem cells, I'm growing younger," he said.

Knox still has coldlike symptoms because his new immune system is battling the rest of his body, and he takes medication to help suppress that. Early next year, doctors at UVa will try to wean him off of that.

In the summer, the couple listed for sale their 5,600-square-foot mansion in the Hollins area of Roanoke County. It's an old house, built by an heir to a DuPont fortune, but it's much bigger than they need with his son in college and daughter living in Boston. They've had only a few nibbles from potential buyers.

If and when they sell, will they stay in Roanoke? They don't know the answer to that one.

Donna Knox has a written 95,000-word memoir "about what they did to Cecil." By that, she means the drawn-out criminal case in which federal prosecutors tried to imprison the former pain specialist for life for misprescribing narcotics.

They failed at that. Knox was acquitted on half the charges at his first trial, then pleaded guilty to some reduced charges at the second, to avoid the cost and stress of a second trial; the plea deal also allowed him to avoid a possible prison sentence. But the ordeal cost Knox his medical license and the couple their life's savings and then some. It's unclear whether he will ever practice medicine again.

Donna Knox has a literary agent in New York who's now shopping the book to major publishers. The working title is "Came the Hunter."

I can't wait to read it — and see who plays them in the Hollywood movie.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email
BUY A PHOTO
[BROWSE PHOTOS]