|Patients and donors from far and wide unite at the annual Celebration of Life Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion
Jerome Williams learned to walk, talk, write and drive a car before Janelle Cunningham was even born. Despite their 23-year difference in age, though, it was Cunningham who taught Williams his most valuable lesson: that complete strangers can be loving, kind and — in his case — lifesaving.
Williams and Cunningham were one of two pairs of bone marrow donors and recipients who met for the first time at City of Hope’s 35th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion in April.
“We all believe that saving one life is saving many; it means keeping families together,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis and Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, chair of the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation and the event’s emcee.
During a press conference at the Duarte, Calif., campus, Williams, a 45-year-old actor from Los Angeles, met his 22-year-old donor, Cunningham, a biomedical engineering student from Miami. Artist Anita Finnegan, 52, from Altadena, Calif., greeted her donor, paralegal Carolyn Rogers, 43, of Chicago.
“As a bone marrow transplant doctor, one of the very special moments is when you can walk into a patient’s room and say ‘we’ve got a match,’” said Williams’ physician, Pablo Parker, M.D., clinical professor of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation. Parker had that privilege in 2009, when he told Williams — who was struggling with chronic myelogenous leukemia — that a compatible donor had been found for him. At the press conference, he introduced Williams to that donor.
After exchanging tearful hugs with Cunningham, Williams thanked God, his family, Parker and his nurses, and urged people to enroll in the national donor registry, Be The Match. “I’m living proof why it’s so important. You get the opportunity to extend someone’s life,” he said.
A sobbing Cunningham told reporters about her motivation to help. “I just thought about my family,” she said, “and how much it would mean to me if somebody could save their lives.”
Although the other recipient-donor pair, Finnegan and Rogers, had never met, they had bonded over phone calls and emails since 2008 — a year after Rogers’ stem cells saved Finnegan’s life.
“You’ve got good cells there, girl,” Finnegan cheerfully told Rogers as the two finally embraced. She also praised her husband, Ron Finnegan, physician Eileen Smith, M.D., associate director of clinical research in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, and her nurses.
During the afternoon program, Forman welcomed patients who sported buttons emblazoned with the years that had elapsed since their transplants. “Whether you’re expressing your accomplishment in months or years or decades, all of us who work here want nothing more than for that number to grow and for you to live your life on your own terms, rediscovering life, rediscovering love, liberated from the disease that brought you to us,” he said.
Reunion attendees listened to guest speaker Andre Ethier, Major League Baseball All-Star and outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who said he appreciates his visits with City of Hope patients. When players meet patients, he said, it “puts things in perspective for all of us.”
Forman also recognized three fundraisers: Power of Hope chair Tony Markel, as well as two 13-year-old girls, Morgan Davidson and Solange Kupersmid. Davidson organized a haircuta- thon raising $25,000 and signed up 25 people for the donor registry in memory of her grandmother, who died of lymphoma. Kupersmid donated her bat mitzvah gifts to City of Hope in gratitude for her father’s lifesaving transplant.
Afterward, Forman noted that City of Hope staff members would head back to their laboratories, offices and hospital halls with renewed commitment to help patients in treatment beat their disease.
Forman pointed to the hospital and said, “Those people up there are imagining themselves here, and we want them here next year.”
PHOTOS: THOMAS BROWN