7/24/2017 10:39:00 AM A grateful life Moulzolf battled leukemia, now in remission
The Moulzolf family (front, from left) – Alaina and Landen; (back, from left) Murry, Neil holding Logan, and Erica – are grateful the past year is behind them. Last February, Neil was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but is now 10 months into remission. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
Father-son duo Murry and Neil Moulzolf milk 170 cows in a partnership near Rice, Minn. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
RICE, Minn. - With a tingling sensation in his feet while doing chores and a handful of medications taken daily, Neil Moulzolf is constantly reminded last year's series of misfortunes that forever changed his life. "Prior to this, I thought I was invincible. I'd always be thinking about what could be done tomorrow, but now, it's always about today," said Neil, who milks 170 cows in partnership with his dad, Murry, near Rice, Minn. On Feb. 24, 2016, Neil was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and spent the following eight months fighting for his life. Currently, Neil is eight months into remission and cherishing every moment alongside his wife, Erica, and three young children - Alaina, 9, Landen, 3.5, and Logan, 2.
An unsettling diagnosis Last winter was penciling out to look like others in years past for the Moulzolfs, with bitter cold temperatures making it difficult to complete chores and maintain one's heath. In January, Neil came down with a bout of flu. "I thought I had gotten over it, but a few days later I was pitching out manure, because the barn cleaner broke, and that ran me down again," Neil said. "By February, I was finally feeling better." However, the feeling soon dissipated one morning after spending the previous evening playing with his children. "The kids and I were wrestling the night before when I heard a popping sound coming from my side," Neil said. "The next morning, a cough started and it felt like I was being stabbed with a knife." After visiting the doctor's office, Neil was instructed to take over-the-counter pain medication for what was assumed to be a pulled muscle. Unfortunately, symptoms of an unknown illness continued with purple spots appearing on the tops of his feet and his jaw swelling after biting into a small piece of candy. On Feb. 19, Neil knew something was not right. "I was in the barn sweeping the stalls when I became short of breathe," Neil said, recalling his dad and brother, Andy, taking over the chore. "I tried milking, but didn't get halfway through - I couldn't stand." After returning to the house for breakfast, the symptoms subsided. But when Neil awoke from a mid-morning nap, excruciating pressure in his head led to an emergency room visit. "I had some blood work done," Neil said. "When [doctors] came back into my room, they had a grim look on their faces. They told me I wasn't going home and working with cows." Neil's platelet count was at 10,000 platelets per microliter of blood. A normal count can range from 174,000 to 400,000. With early indications of leukemia, Neil and Erica met with an oncology doctor to schedule a bone marrow biopsy. "I hadn't been to the doctor since my ninth grade physical, and then here I was in the hospital with an IV in my arm, preparing for a biopsy," Neil said. After going through two biopsies, with the first one being unsuccessful, doctors accurately diagnosed Neil. "I was in the hospital room by myself when the doctor came in and told me the news - I just sat there, staring at the wall," said Neil, tears in his eyes as he recalled that moment. "They told me I had to start treatment right away, my blood was 90 percent leukemia."
Cancer's unruly nature With the severity of Neil's condition, he began an intense round of chemotherapy treatment Feb. 25 - a day after the diagnosis. "On Feb. 28, I celebrated my 33rd birthday in the hospital with a Dairy Queen ice cream cake and family," Neil said. Throughout the month of March, Neil continued on his first round of treatments, with family and friends present for support. "Everyone was so good about trying to keep Neil's spirits up," Erica said. "Even our milk truck driver stopped by and watched a movie with him." Neil agreed. "Dad would call me every morning - it was like we were running the farm from the hospital," he said. After spending nearly a month in the hospital, Neil returned home March 11 to celebrate Logan's first birthday and Alaina's first communion. One week later he began another round of treatment. To prevent the cancer from worsening, Neil had intrathecal chemotherapy, where spinal fluid is removed and medication replaces it. Unbeknownst to the Moulzolfs, Neil has spinal stenosis, which made it impossible to extract fluid from his spinal cord. "Cancer tends to hide in the brain, so we needed some way to get through to the nervous system," Erica said. On April 26, Neil had surgery for a port to be placed on the top of his head for the intrathecal treatment; the following morning, it was removed and replaced. "I woke up in excruciating pain," Neil said. "They did a CT scan and realized the port was in the wrong place." As Neil continued with the chemotherapy regime, he was evaluated for the possibility of a bone marrow transplant. With the treatments seemingly working, Neil could bypass the transplant option and continue towards remission. Neil's prognosis was looking hopeful, so he returned home over Mother's Day weekend and spent time in the fields. "But, then I got a bloody nose and it would not stop - it lasted all night and into the next morning," Neil said. "I was literally spitting clots into a cup. My blood had no consistency, it was water-like." When the Moulzolfs arrived at the emergency room, they realized Neil's hemoglobin levels had reached four grams per deciliter, when they should be upwards of 17. Neil received five units of blood and three platelet transfers. Between February and August, Neil went through eight rounds of chemotherapy.
Finally, hope Last fall, Neil showed signs of progress. After receiving a PET scan in September, there were no indications of cancer present. Now, Neil is on maintenance medication and monthly rounds of treatment for the next two years to aid in remission. "In such a short period of time, it was a horrific and stressful time," Erica said. Neil agreed. "All last year, I never thought I'd die, but this winter I realized just how close I was to not being here," he said. "I have nightmares about that." With generous help from Arnold's Equipment of St. Cloud and a benefit hosted by the Moulzolfs' families at Gilman Co-op Creamery, Neil and his family are rediscovering their life on the dairy. "I went to hell and back, and I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," Neil said. "Most importantly, I'm grateful to be alive."