Leukemia has taken a lot, but he is optimistic about his future
By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Picture a robust man in his early 60s weighing about 280 pounds. A man who ran his own machine shop and carried 240-pound pieces of pipe and steel from point A to point B with no effort. It’s a picture of health.
Take that same man, less than two years later, 125 pounds lighter and unable to lift 20 pounds.
That is what leukemia has done to Upsala’s Tony Achmann.
Achmann started his machine shop in 1999 after milking cows for 17 years.
“I had to get the dairy thing out of my system before doing anything else,” he said. “It was a great way to raise kids, but I am still not sure how it got into my system in the first place.”
Achmann grew up in the Avon area. His father had a lumber mill and livestock trucks. He grew up with chickens and pigs, a large garden and an acre of cucumbers that were sold to a pickle company.
“I graduated from St. Cloud Technical High School in 1969, then went to St. Cloud Vocational Technical College and learned machining,” he said. “I married Darlene Feld in 1971 and we had three children, Lisa, Robin and John.”
The Achmanns moved to their current location, a farm west of Upsala in 1976.
Tony’s Tool and Cutter business was a success because he used his imagination and know-how to create pieces of machinery which many said were impossible.
“I started with sharpening tools for other machine shops, but many of my customers were asking for mill and lathe work,” he said. “So I expanded and started creating all manner of parts, even those no longer available on the open market.”
Achmann also created parts for violins and hydraulic cylinders from scratch. His snowmobile and tractor parts have been sent to countries around the world.
Achmann loved his job. He could help his friends, neighbors and strangers while thinking outside the box to create just what they needed to keep their livelihoods going.
In December 2010, Achmann doctored for an obstructed bowel. His blood tests showed an elevated white cell count and his doctor told him to see an oncologist. The tests given to him at the Coborn Cancer Center in St. Cloud showed he had chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), a cancer of the early blood-forming cells.
“In December, my white cell count was about 39,000. A normal count is around 10,000,” he said. “For the time being, the doctors decided to monitor the situation.”
No procedures were scheduled at that time, but the leukemia was kept under observation.
In April 2011, Achmann had a bone marrow aspiration, a procedure where marrow is removed for testing. The white cell numbers had not increased. In fact, they had decreased.
“A year went by with no change,” said Achmann. “I continued my life as usual.”
“We went dancing all the time, Tony was feeling normal,” said Darlene.
Then July of this year arrived and Achmann was diagnosed with a condition called ascites, a term for an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity, a space separating the organs from the abdominal wall.
“Every week I had to go into the doctor’s office and have eight – 11 liters of fluid removed. I am still going through this,” he said. “It was at that point I lost all my energy.”
Since July, Achmann said he has lost 70 pounds.
Achmann said he would get up in the morning and make breakfast. Just that bit of exertion put him back in bed for a nap. Doing the dishes did the same.
Dr. Girum Lemma at the Coborn Cancer Center sent Achmann to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a second opinion. There he and Darlene stayed for two days enduring lots of tests directed by Dr. Hasch Hasmi.
“I was told I needed a stem cell transplant to cure my leukemia,” Achmann said. “That sounded scary. I was told I would be given heavy chemotherapy for four days that would pretty much sterilize my body. It would also temporarily do damage to my heart and kidneys. After that, I would have the transplant.”
The process would destroy all Achmann’s childhood immunizations, along with his immune system. He was told the new stem cells would create a new immune system, along with giving him a new blood type.
“The stem cells will come from a donor with a DNA match to me. I don’t know who it is and he or she lives in another country,” Achmann said. “The donor will take medications to separate the stem cells from the bone marrow. The blood will be removed, the stem cells taken out and the blood returned to the donor’s body. There is no need for this person to travel, it will all be done where they live. The stem cells will be frozen and flown to Rochester. I have been told to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
Achmann was told his blood type doesn’t have to match the donor’s, for when he receives the stem cells, his body will accept the donor’s blood type.
“After the transplant, I will have to give blood daily. That will be the hardest part for me, living in Rochester in a transplant home for three months,” he said.
Achmann and Darlene said they think the day of the transplant is getting close for more tests are being done in Rochester Monday.
“Tony is going to have an electrocardiogram to ensure the health of his heart,” said Darlene.
For a year after the transplant, Achmann cannot be around children, which will be tough. They have three grandchildren and the youngest is 10 months.
He will also have to avoid crowds, fresh fruits and vegetables, tap water and keep out of the dirt. The last will be hard, too, for he loves to garden.
No date has been set for the stem cell transplant and none will be until Achmann’s ascites has healed. After that, it’s up to the donor.
A benefit to offset the cost of all these procedures has been set up by Achmann’s brother, Leon. Their children have also pitched in to help.
The event will be held at the Upsala Recreation Building Saturday, Oct. 27, from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. The Recreation Building is located at 320 Walnut Avenue, one block east of the high school. Both a live and silent auction has been set up along with live music and supper.
If unable to attend the benefit, donations are being accepted at Stearns Bank Upsala, P.O. Box 130, Upsala, MN, 56384. For more information, call (320) 50-2676 or (320) 573-2894.
Right now, the sign at the end of Achmann’s driveway which directs people to Tony’s Tool and Cutter business is still there. He said it will be coming down soon and he’s not sure if it will ever go up again.
“While I really miss the work and the people, I have no choice right now but to take a break,” he said. “I think I am starting a new chapter in my life.”