Jennifer Vrana has been in the midst of an adrenaline rush for 18 years. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Philadelphia police officer headed to New York City to join the bucket brigade at the World Trade Center site. Seven weeks later, she was diagnosed with stage 4b Hodgkin’s disease and began chemotherapy at Pennsylvania Hospital. A year after that, she needed a stem cell transplant. But even when facing unrelenting challenges, she didn’t slow down — instead, she sped up. Next month, Vrana will summit Mount Kilimanjaro on the 17th anniversary of her transplant with “Penn Medicine” emblazoned across her chest, making the tallest mountain in Africa yet another stop on her survivor’s journey.
Step One: Find Normalcy Amid Chaos
Vrana began her cancer treatment at another hospital, but quickly felt that she was being treated “as a number” rather than a person. She recalls the physicians telling her that they were “excited to be able to keep people alive for up to seven years,” and the bizarre, nonchalant comment only strengthened her resolve to beat the odds.
She switched to PAH for her care and recognized immediately that her oncologists, David Henry, MD, vice chair of the Department of Medicine, and Patricia Ford, MD, director of the Peripheral Stem Cell Transplant Program and the Center for Bloodless Medicine and Surgery, were a perfect fit. “I had my primary doctor at one location, my surgeon at another, and then Dr. Henry and Dr. Ford at Pennsylvania Hospital, and they all knew each other and worked well together across health systems. In that aspect, I was beyond blessed. I’d found the right place at the right time,” she said.
During her eight cycles of chemotherapy, Vrana had two goals: keep working and keep planning. She transferred from the Roxborough/Manayunk police district to City Hall so she could walk to the hospital for treatment every other Monday at 9 a.m., and she never took time off. Seeing herself in uniform in the mirror each morning kept her motivated, “and it brought a sense of normalcy — for me and for other patients getting chemo who saw a cop with a PICC line coming out of her chest.”
Sluggishness set in by Thursday each week, but she kept herself going by planning exciting outings — bringing her horse to rodeos, going to concerts, skydiving, swimming with dolphins, and “everything else that doctors told [her] not to do.” Henry and Ford quickly became used to Vrana coming in with stories to share; before the electronic medical record was implemented, her physical file rapidly filled with photos of her adventures.
When it came time for her stem cell transplant in October 2002, Vrana was still reveling in the success of a rodeo competition that she had won three weeks prior. Her hair was gone, but she was in high spirits, which were further bolstered by the success of the lifesaving procedure. Two days after discharge, though, she contracted a staph infection and was rushed back to PAH. When her care team noted that her chance of survival was declining by the hour, Vrana hopped off her gurney and staggered back to her room saying, “If I’m about to die, I’m going to die on my own two feet.” Fortunately, her fever broke overnight, and when her family arrived the next morning, they found her calmly smoking a cigarette by her window (and hiding it from her nurses).
“I had the best nurses on earth, and I still keep in touch with a couple of them,” she said. “I truly believe that if it wasn’t for my nurses that night, I wouldn’t have made it. They stuck to me like glue. I experienced the worst 24 hours of my life, but that was the turning point.”
Step Two: Ditch Normalcy Altogether
In the 17 years that followed her transplant, Vrana has recovered and was given a clean bill of health. She has given up smoking, picked up running, and adopted a healthy diet, but more significantly, the shift in perspective prompted by her diagnosis surprisingly shifted her mental health in a positive direction.
“I really do consider this whole experience to be a gift. Pre-cancer, I had my job, my friends, my rodeos — but I appreciate everything so much more,” she said. “Every step of the way, I expected to die. I was told that I’d be lucky to live for seven years, and now I’m turning 50. I’m a survivor, and I'm not going to slow down.”
Though she has started to plan her life out with a long-term timeline in mind, Vrana still lives her life in a six-month long mindset. These chunks of time are filled with as many “spectacular things” as she can fit — both to celebrate her continued ability to engage with the world around her, and to honor those who cannot embark on the same journeys. Though her life has decidedly not been “normal” for nearly two decades, she remains a hard worker, a generous volunteer, and a down-to-earth, spiritual soul.
Attempting to pare down a short list of her accomplishments and exploits is a difficult task. She returned to school and earned her BA and MBA, gained two promotions and became a lieutenant on the police force, helped found the Liberty Gay Rodeo Association, reconnected with her family, and married her wife and “ultimate reward,” Suzanne. She has also gone skydiving over an Arizona desert and cage diving surrounded by great white sharks; galloped on horseback through fields filled with rhinos and zebras and watched the sunrise from a hot air balloon over the Valley of the Kings; spent time supporting children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in South Africa and made regular visits to the Disney parks; and most recently, climbed Pike’s Peak in Colorado as practice for her journey to the top of Kilimanjaro.
“I’ve been able to do the craziest, most amazing things. My first post-transplant trip was to Iceland. A friend and I were snowmobiling on a glacier, and as we went through the clouds at the top, I just cried. It was so beautiful, and I was so thankful to be alive. I think I’ll feel that on Kilimanjaro, too,” Vrana said.
“Cancer’s just a word. Believe me, I know how privileged I am to say that; survivor’s guilt is real, and I strive daily to be the best I can be in honor of those who were lost. But a diagnosis is just a diagnosis. It’s what you do with it that matters,” she continued. “Do it your way. Only you know what your way is. But I do know that the day you decide you’re too tired to get up — that’s the day you start dying. So I never laid down. And I’m still moving.”
To learn more about Jennifer Vrana’s journey and to donate to her fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, visit www.ABeatOfHerOwn.com. Her goal is $19,341 — Kilimanjaro’s elevation.