By Kathleen O'Neil
Thousands of people showered 10-year-old patient Cindy Campos and her bone marrow transplant donor with applause at the recent 31st annual “Celebration of Life” Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation Reunion.
The crowd then rose to its feet to salute another former patient who walked up to the main stage on two prosthetic legs — limbs he needed after experiencing a near-fatal infection years after his transplant.
While the success stories change every year, attendees at the yearly “Celebration of Life” event appreciate every one, knowing how hard successes can be to come by.
A City of Hope tradition, the festive event was held April 27 on the Duarte, Calif., campus.
“We do this year after year, and it never gets old — there are always new stories of courage and hope in our patients,” said Stephen Forman, M.D., the Francis and Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation and clinical director of the Division of Cancer Immunotherapeutics & Tumor Immunology. He introduced Campos and another transplant recipient, John Ruble, to their donors for the first time at a morning press conference.
The experience is even more powerful for the patients themselves.
Campos, upon meeting her donor, 50-year-old airline pilot Doug Baxter, cried as Baxter knelt to give her a hug. Campos’ mother thanked Baxter and City of Hope staff for saving Cindy’s life.
After Ruble met his donor, a young engineering professor from Indiana, Ruble told how the man’s selfless gift gave him his life back. “I’m amazed at this sort of largesse from a 29-year-old,” Ruble said, his voice filled with emotion. “Marrow donation is not trivial.”
Local Assemblyman Anthony Portantino also spoke at the press conference about a bill he is sponsoring that would create a statewide cord blood collection program to improve the chances of a match for people who needed transplants.
Later in the morning, attendees gathered under white tents in Pioneer Park to visit with one another, catch up with their former physicians, and be entertained by former patients during the lunchtime program.
Comedian Sean Kent drew laughs with his musings on the benefits of a morphine drip before turning serious with stories of his experiences of coping with cancer and finding solace in nature.
Forman, meanwhile, thanked three young fundraisers: Emily Gottlich, who used her bat mitzvah project to raise $5,000 by writing letters asking people to donate to City of Hope; Isabel Sunshine, who created a Web site and conducted hematopoietic cell transplant (HCT) donor
drives that led to 119 new donors and raised more than $3,500; and Giovanna Nocera, who made bracelets called “Hope Beads” to benefit City of Hope.
He also praised nursing staff, and toward the end of the program, asked the crowd to stand and remember those who had not survived treatment, a reunion tradition.
Forman noted that, after losing a bet with his assistant, Gail Herndon, administrative director of the Division of Hematology & HCT and the reunion’s organizer, he learned that the total years of lives saved by the HCT team added up not to about 1,000 years — as he guessed — but something more like 19,000 years.
“That’s longer than recorded human history,” said Forman. It is also a long way from the one year of life celebrated at the first such party — consisting of a cake cut in a hospital kitchen three decades ago to celebrate one patient.
“And we’re going to just keep adding more each year,” he said.