The date was July 28, 2018, which Jolie Tirado Doyle remembers as maybe the most vivid morning of her life. Her now-husband, Matt Doyle, had jiujitsu training that day at Buffalo RiverWorks, while Jolie, a leukemia survivor, had what she painted as a routine doctor’s appointment.
From there, she intended to pick up Matt before she left for work. She showed up as planned at RiverWorks, where Matt climbed into the car on a beautiful summer day. As Jolie drove away she abruptly started crying, deep sobs that made it impossible to speak.
Too overwhelmed to drive, she pulled into the Swannie House parking lot and Matt – shaken – thought it could only be one thing.
The doctor had told his fiancée she had cancer, or her leukemia was back.
“Honey!” he said, leaning forward to console her. “Whatever it is, I’ll be at your side.”
He was 1000% right, though not about what he thought was coming.
Jolie was pregnant. I would save that Mother’s Day revelation until the end of this piece, but I know you are already looking at a photo of Matt and Jolie with their toddler son, Flynn. A baby is a big deal for anyone, at any time, but this is why Jolie cried in the Old First Ward.
“In my head, there was no chance,” she said of childbirth.
At 19, as a college student in Connecticut, she learned she had acute myeloid leukemia. Within days, she was admitted to the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center for a stay that basically lasted from Christmas Eve 2008 into the next June – for treatments that typically end any chance of conceiving a child.
“If you don’t have a cycle you can’t have kids, and that’s what happened,” Jolie said.
She endured chemotherapy and blasts of full-body radiation, all of it leading to a marrow transplant. The major question was survival, which is what Jolie achieved.
“She was alive,” said Caroline Tirado Schwartz, her mother, “and that was all that mattered.”
Once Jolie reached a point where it was safe, she studied in Ireland and finished college in Connecticut before moving for good to Buffalo, the city she will always equate with life. She ended up meeting Matt, now 41, a guy who fell in love with her and quickly accepted a shared reality.
To have children, they would need to adopt or embrace foster care. Jolie explained that biological birth was clearly impossible. She had not menstruated in more than a decade. By her late 20s, she was on hormone therapy and her general practitioner was referring to her as post-menstrual.
At Roswell, as a teenager, Jolie had been treated by Dr. Philip McCarthy, director of the transplant and cellular therapy program. McCarthy is a thoughtful guy, deeply worried about the pandemic that surrounds us, and he was happy for the chance to marvel out loud about Jolie.
While leukemia is often curable, he said, there is “a price to be paid” for the searing nature of the treatments. Many patients lose their fertility. If a woman receives full-body radiation, McCarthy said, it “usually does in your ovaries.”
Even McCarthy sees Jolie’s pregnancy as astounding, and he boiled a more complicated medical explanation into this:
“That may have been the first time she popped an egg,” McCarthy said, “and she was in the right place at the right time.”
Her tale is also one of generational return to Western New York. Jolie’s parents, Caroline and Ramon Tirado, were from South Buffalo. They left decades ago for Connecticut with their children, at a time when the economy “in Buffalo was not so good,” as Caroline put it.
Still, this community always remained their family center, their emotional old country.
Caroline is a nurse. When her daughter grew ill in the middle of finals at Southern Connecticut University – and a blood test showed that what Jolie thought was a mild flu was something far more frightening – Caroline called her sister Maggie, a nurse married to Dr. Eric Tenbrock, a Buffalo pulmonologist.
The couple said Roswell was the best place for Jolie, both for the care and because Buffalo – unlike some larger city filled with strangers – would equate to multiple layers of support.
At that point, Jolie focused on one goal.
“Dying was not a possibility,” she said.
Jolie lost her hair at Roswell and “went home wearing a wig, with my port in my arm,” while accepting what McCarthy said about a price to pay.
She had survived. If she could never have children, she said, “I’d be the really cool aunt.”
Those first two years, 2008 and 2009, were as hard as it gets. Jolie lost her dad, a maintenance mechanic, to a heart attack. Living in quarantine, as we know it today, is hardly new to her. During treatment, especially after her bone marrow transplant, touching strangers could lead to swift infection. She had to wear a mask just to walk to her mailbox. Even dormitory life was deemed unsafe.
Her recovery helped generate a realization.
“I fell in love with Buffalo,” she said of moving back.
Her older brother Chris was already here, and a younger brother, Austin, soon joined them. Jolie built a career involving online health care portals, and one day she met Matt, a Wayne County native, through the Tinder dating app.
Over dinner in Allentown, they realized they shared the same dry sense of humor, and their relationship did not take long to ignite. By their third date, Jolie was leveling with Matt about how she could never have a kid, and Matt – just like that – said it was no problem.
“He jumped on,” Jolie said, “and was along for the ride.”
In May 2018, on a trip to Seattle, Matt proposed and she said yes. Soon, even amid that happiness, Jolie grew worried. Her stomach seemed bloated, and she noticed a hard spot she feared might be a growth. She did not say much about it to Matt, but she quietly made a doctor’s appointment, preparing for the worst.
On that July morning, while Matt prepared to leave, she put her hands on her stomach. “I feel like I look pregnant,” she said, guessing at anything but the obvious.
Matt, exercising wisdom, said she looked great.
She chose not to say much to him about her terror that cancer might be causing changes in her body. She went to her physician’s office, where staff members did a bone density test and then an ultrasound, before she was told:
“There are no tumors, but we did find something.”
They turned the screen so Jolie could see. She was 24-weeks pregnant, not so far from giving birth.
Overwhelmed, she called her mother, trying to say “It’s a baby!” through the sobs. Then she hurried to pick up Matt for the moment of shared revelation outside Swannie House.
They would soon be married – “a traditional shotgun wedding,” Matt says cheerfully – not long before the birth of their son Flynn, a little guy with flaming red hair born after 80 efficient minutes of labor.
Matt is an executive search consultant with StraussGroup. He’s worked for the past six weeks from home. The couple stays behind closed doors at their house in North Buffalo, as much as they can. They want nothing to do with Covid-19 – especially since Jolie knows those old treatments for leukemia might elevate her risk – and these quiet days are a chance to focus on the child who still fills them both with awe.
“I’m cherishing the time,” Matt said.
While they miss their extended families, and Jolie wishes she could see her own mom on Sunday, she and Caroline, in Connecticut, agree their latest piece of news more than compensates for a temporary separation.
Right after Jolie gave birth to Flynn, she had a dream that she and Matt would have another baby, named Fiona. Get this. The doctors tell Jolie she is pregnant again, and the child will be a girl.
“It takes your breath away,” said Caroline, a grandmother who finds plenty to celebrate from afar on Mother’s Day in the simple wonder of Jolee and her growing family, safe at home.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive.