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Emil Boures is a man of few words.
His wife of 35 years, Michelle, is not.
Emil always preferred to let his play on the football field do the talking. A former offensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh, where he met Michelle, a cheerleader, Emil was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1982 NFL Draft. He played on the offensive line with the Steelers from 1982-87, and Emil, at 6-foot-1 and 259 pounds, spoke volumes on the gridiron with his bruising physicality.
The couple, introduced by a mutual friend while attending Pitt, married in April 1983. When asked about the genesis of their love story, Emil simply responded, “One thing led to another, and we ended up getting married.” He opts to let his wife do most of the talking, and Michelle happily acquiesces.
“They say that opposites attract; well, this is opposites,” Michelle cheerily said. “Emil is the strong, silent type. He’s always been like that.”
And despite the fact that the couple married 35 years ago, the words they spoke to each other that day have never rang truer.
“Sickness or health, better or worse; these are the vows we took,” Michelle said. “Right now, we’re hitting them all.”
The couple still calls Pittsburgh home, but have been guests of Nick’s House in Swarthmore since late April as Emil, 58, recovers from a bone marrow transplant he received on March 30 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. In November 2016, he was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder that affects production of blood cells. The disease is characterized as a slowly-developing, uncommon type of chronic leukemia, a cancer that disrupts blood-forming tissues in the body.
“I got the call while Emil was at work,” Michelle recalled. “His hemoglobin levels were down to 7.2, while normal levels are between 14 and 16. The doctor told me Emil needed to come home and get to the hospital for a blood transfusion.’”
The couple headed straight to the hospital. Emil’s blood was retested, and his hemoglobin levels had climbed to 8.3 (8 is the transfusion threshold). Still, he returned to the hematologist, this time for a bone marrow biopsy, and that’s when the diagnosis of myelofibrosis became known.
The following June, after more transfusions and a change in medication, he was tested again. The results showed the disease had progressed, but not much. Then, in late 2017, results of another genetic test indicated that two more genes had mutated, including one with high risk of transferring to acute myeloid leukemia. This meant it was time for Emil to receive a bone marrow transplant.
Emil and Michelle’s next challenge was finding a treatment facility that matched their insurance plan. After conducting careful research and weighing their options, they chose Penn.
“Penn had the highest success rate for doing bone marrow transplants,” Michelle said. “Plus, the research being done there was very impressive. It’s been phenomenal. They present a plan up front, and if something goes wrong, within an hour we’ll be in touch with a doctor and have an answer. I’ve never seen communication and efficiency like I have at Penn.”
Emil and Michelle arriving at Penn turned out to be kismet in more ways than one. Emil received his bone marrow transplant on March 30 — his brother, Joe, was the donor — and after more than a month in the hospital, the couple moved into Nick’s House for Emil’s recovery. Michelle stayed at a friend’s apartment in Philadelphia while Emil was in the hospital, but there wouldn’t be enough room for both after he was discharged, creating a housing dilemma. Considering Michelle and Emil would need to be in the region through early July, an extended hotel stay was not an option.
The Boures’ found out about Nick’s House through their nurse practitioner at Penn, and were quickly approved to stay. They moved in at the end of April.
“It takes a lot of the financial burden off to stay in a place like this,” Michelle said. “You can feel the love put into in every room. I call it our home away from home. We’ve been fortunate that everyone staying here is so nice; while everyone isn’t experiencing the same type of cancer, we’re all in the same boat. We can share our experiences and feelings with one another.”
“This place is unbelievable,” Emil added. “I can rehab here without any distractions. Mentally, I’m right where I need to be and am positive with where I’m heading. The flexibility to be able to stay here is phenomenal; if we had to stay in a hotel, I don’t know what we would do.”
Much like his time on the football field, Emil has tackled this obstacle with all of his might.
“My mentality comes from all the training I’ve done, with all the camps I went through getting ready to compete,” Emil added. “That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m competing, and I’m very focused on getting well.”
The couple can’t wait to get back to Pittsburgh later this summer. They miss their two children, Emil Jr. and Nicole, son-in-law Mark and their 2-year-old grandson, Marky. At the same, the ability to stay at Nick’s House for a prolonged period has been a gift for Michelle and Emil.
“You still have to maintain your home and current bills, so it’s been a huge relief in that way,” Michelle said.
And despite being a man of few words, Emil had no problems summing up what having Michelle there as his rock in the entire process has meant to him.
“She’s been there for me since day one through it all,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s been an angel.”
The HEADstrong Foundation™ is a 501(c)3 committed to improving lives affected by cancer, founded by the late Nicholas “HEAD” Colleluori. The non-profit organization plays a vital role as a direct resource to families overcome by the hardships of cancer. HEADstrong provides a variety of services, which range from financial assistance to funding capital projects to peer mentorship and, most notably, HEADstrong operates Nick’s House™, a guest family home providing more than 2,555 nights of complimentary lodging and support to families displaced in the pursuit of life-saving cancer treatment. Today, Nick’s vision is being fulfilled through the relentless efforts of his family, athletes and supporters across the country uniting in the fight against cancer. For more information on the HEADstrong Foundation and how to donate, host a fundraiser or volunteer, please visit www.HEADstrong.org.