May 13, 2014 | by Nicole White
Some celebrated decades of being cancer-free, treating the date of their bone marrow or stem cell transplant like a second birthday. Others celebrated having made it just a few months past their transplant, which had occurred a stone’s throw from the day's festivities.
For two patients, it meant meeting for the first time the donors who gave their bone marrow to save the lives of strangers on some other continent. For two donors, it meant no longer being strangers to the people they had saved.
For everyone who attended City of Hope’s 38th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, this was a celebration of life.
“The transplants we do here are not limited by barriers of borders, difference of culture, ethnicity, religion or history, but are transcended by what binds us one to another as human beings,” said Stephen Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope. “In the quest for a cure, the world is actually very small.”
Kayla Saikaly, a 17-year-old girl of Lebanese descent who received a bone marrow transplant for aplastic anemia, embraced donor Adi Versano, a 27-year-old woman from Israel. They hit it off quickly, even making plans to go to Disneyland during Versano’s visit.
George Winston, whose piano, guitar and harmonica music has fans around the world, met donor Antonia Klyn from Germany, gifting her with a box of his CDs. Her donation, he says, will make it possible to make the next 18 he already has envisioned.
This year, the event also welcomed The Baton Pass, a joint campaign by Stand Up To Cancer and Siemens to raise funds for Stand Up To Cancer's cancer research efforts. Siemens, which supplies the health care industry with imaging and diagnostic technology, will donate $1 to Stand Up to Cancer for every pass of the baton, up to $1 million. The baton passed among the visitors at the reunion, and also among the patients in City of Hope Helford Clinical Research Hospital.
The Baton Pass at City of Hope kicked off with Rodrigo Nunez, who knows about the power of receiving something good and passing it on. His first experience with City of Hope was 36 years ago, when he was a teenager who needed a bone marrow transplant. On a long ambulance ride from Northern California, he didn’t get a chance to eat. He arrived at City of Hope hungry and hours late for lunch. One of his nurses gave him her own lunch.
That’s when he decided to become a transplant nurse himself. He did, and his first assignment was taking care of a teenage boy in the same room where he himself had been treated a decade before. Nunez is celebrating 36 years since his bone marrow transplant. Like he has every year, he donned a tuxedo for the Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.
For him, it’s a special occasion, he explains, like a birthday – but marking what became a new beginning in his life, and the beginning of his life with City of Hope, which he says has become a family to him.
A celebration for everyone
The Celebration of Life honors not just the more than 4,000 patients, donors and loved ones who attend the reunion to share stories over cupcakes and barbecue, but all of the patients who are among those who have received the nearly 12,000 hematopoietic cell transplants performed here.
Amid the celebration, Forman paused to acknowledge those who had passed. Even celebrating the success of a program that has for the last nine years had the most successful outcomes in the nation, he reminded the City of Hope community that this is a moment to celebrate, but also to be humble.
The reunion reminded us, he said, that the focus of the mission for the hundreds of doctors, nurses, researchers and other staff members is to serve patients, to constantly strive for improvement and to work for new scientific breakthroughs.
And, now, it’s time to get back to work.