In the Citizens National Bank lobby Thursday morning, the bank’s executive vice president, Keith Clark, offered a greeting to CNB loan officer James Crow.

“You the man,” Clark told the 25-year-old Brownwood High School graduate, who also graduates Saturday from Howard Payne University with a master’s degree in business administration.

It was a fitting greeting for Crow, who is in remission after having a relapse last year of a form of leukemia known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. 

About 40 CNB employees, most of them wearing T-shirts with the words “Team James” across the front, surrounded Crow, his wife, Hanna and his mother, Melissa, for a cake, cards and photos, celebrating his recovery as well as his upcoming HPU graduation.

At Brownwood High School, Crow — whose mother is a Northwest Elementary School teacher, while his father, David, works at the Havins Unit — was a standout athlete at Brownwood High School, where he played football and baseball.

Crow, a baseball pitcher, signed with McMurry University and later transferred to Howard Payne University.   

Crow’s collegiate baseball career was cut short when he was first diagnosed with ALL in November 2014.  He went through treatment from then until March of 2018, when he was declared cancer free.

After relapsing in July 2018, Crow received several types of treatment — none of them successful — as his doctors tried to get him back into remission. With options narrowing, Crow in February received a treatment that is only a few years old, known as Car T-Cell therapy.

The Car T therapy was his best shot at remission — and it worked.

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Soft-spoken and polite, Crow welcomed a visitor into his office on the bank’s second floor, where he spoke candidly and insightful about his recovery from a rough illness. Though he has understandably thinned down considerably from his muscular days as an athlete, Crow said he feels good.

James and Hanna — an Early High School graduate who works as a nurse tech in the Brownwood Regional Medical Center emergency room — will celebrate their two-year anniversary later this month.

“It’s changed my whole life,” Crow said of his illness. “I appreciate things a whole lot more than I ever have. Just little things … being able to get out of bed and come to work.

“Before I got sick — ‘oh, I’ve got to get up and go to work and do this and that.’ And now it’s like God’s given me the strength to be able to do this. I don’t want  to take it for granted any more because I’ve seen people, and even myself, who can’t even get out of bed sometimes when they’re sick. I don’t say anything to people who complain, but at the same time I try not to complain about things because I know it can be a lot worse than it is.”

Crow said he was at McMurry University for a couple of years before transferring to HPU.

“I was going to play here, and that’s when I got sick the first time,” Crow said.

At age 21, Crow was going through fall baseball workouts at HPU when he began feeling poorly.

“I went to the doctor here,” Crow said. “I actually had strep throat so I thought that’s why I hadn’t been feeling too great.”

Crow traveled to Lubbock one weekend to visit some friends at Texas Tech University. Crow and his friends went to a concert.  “In the middle of the concert I started just getting really dizzy and sweaty,” Crow said. “I actually passed out at the concert.”

Crow was taken by ambulance to a Lubbock hospital, where he was kept for treatment for the brain bleed his sustained when he passed out and hit his head.

“The more tests and stuff they ran, they found it,” Crow said. The “it” was leukemia.

Crow began treatment for leukemia at a Dallas hospital. “I did chemo for, I guess, a couple of years,” Crow said. “I went into remission. Last February I was completely off all medicines and then at the end of last July was when it came back.”

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Crow returned to the Dallas hospital for another round of treatment.

“We did some treatment there and nothing was really working very well,” Crow said. “So they transferred me to UT Southwestern and they tried a treatment there also which didn’t work. So there were a couple of failed attempts on getting me into remission.”

Crow was transferred to an affiliate of UT Southwestern for Car T-Cell therapy, a procedure which was only a few years old.

“This was kind of like one of the last options,” Crow said. “I was getting a little worried. There was stuff they could’ve done if it didn’t work but this was the best shot.” 

In the therapy, cells were extracted from his blood, and the cells were sent to a laboratory, where they were reprogrammed to “fight off any bad cells,” Crow said. The reprogrammed cells were then inserted back into his blood.

“So they’re programed to fight off cancer cells but leave the good cells alone,” Crow said. “That put me into remission.”

The therapy was done in mid-February and “it’s pretty tough for a couple of weeks,” Crow said. “There’s a lot of side effects to it. I had really bad migraines for a week. It kind of feels like you have the flu, sort of.

“At the end of that they did a bone marrow biopsy and a lumbar puncture which shows if there’s any cells in my bones or in my spinal fluid. They want these soldier cells to stick around my body up to a year, and then if they do that, there’s a really good chance of it either not coming back at all or it will be a long ways down the road.” 

Crow said he was still in the hospital when a doctor told him the therapy had put him into remission.

The thoughts that entered his mind were “just relief, so grateful that God was able to help me, and doctors were able to come up with things like this,” Crow said. “But just really relief and praise to God.”

Crow said he will have a bone marrow biopsy and lumbar puncture again next week at the three-month mark of his remission.

“I feel confident. I feel fine,” Crow said.

He returned to his CNB job a couple of weeks ago, initially working half-days but planning to resume full days soon.

“Everything feels fine to me,” Crow said. “I go to weekly visits now and all my bloodwork looks great. There’s not really any concerns right now so I’m optimistic that it will all be good.”

Stressing his faith in God, Crow said, “I definitely leaned on my faith during this time. I go to Coggin Avenue Baptist Church and pastor Tim Skaggs was a big influence to me. He called me all the time, prayed with me.

“I come from a Christian family. That’s what I believe is the best thing to do — put your faith in the Lord and even through adversity and troubled times he’s always there.”

Crow said he has no bitterness about his illness but “I do question it sometimes … why did it have to come back? At the same time I feel that God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.”

Crow said he talked with people in the hospital when he was being treated and met children with the same disease. “They have no idea what’s going on,” Crow said. “I feel God gave me words of encouragement to give to them and their families.

“I think he’s using me to talk about things and help people. I’ve actually started doing a fundraiser every year.”

While not claiming to be thankful for the disease, Crow said the illness made him a better person. “Through everything I try to keep a smile on my face, through all the hard times,” Crow said.

“It was tough on my family, and my wife and I. I think it’s made our bond stronger. She took care of me. The bond with her has definitely grown.”

Crow acknowledged that he did experience bitterness at times. “But when I look back over everything … there were tough times you go through, stuff that I don’t wish on anybody,” Crow said.

He recalled times when he was so weak he could barely get out of bed, and had to use a walker.

But the illness “opened a new light for me, spiritually and just as a person,” Crow said. “I just appreciate the little things a whole lot more. I don’t have any regrets about it. There was some stuff I wish I wouldn’t have had to go through, but it was all necessary and it worked out in the end.”