An emotional reunion between bone marrow donor, recipient

May 11, 2016 | by Stephanie Smith

Vanessa Brobbey paced nervously and then sat down. Her eyes darted around with excitement and then welled up with tears.

In a few minutes she would meet the person to whom she donated bone marrow, and the 20-year-old could not decide how to feel.

“I’ve been talking about it and thinking about it, imagining who my patient could be,” said Vanessa. “I’m anxious. I’m ready to explode.”

Across the way in another building, 15-year-old transplant recipient Dominick Folbrecht swung around in a rolling chair, bobbing excitedly.

When asked how he felt about soon meeting the person whose bone marrow had saved his life, the teenager flashed a broad smile and said one word: “Nervous.”

In less than an hour, Vanessa and Dominick — along with famed television producer Steven Bochco and his 25-year-old donor Jon Kayne — would meet at City of Hope’s 40th Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.

The emotional event, attended yearly by thousands of other donors and recipients is not just a celebration, but a day that marks the way lives become inextricably linked by bone marrow donation. During the 40-year history of the program, more than 13,000 patients have received bone marrow transplants at City of Hope.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and it never gets old,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope, speaking about the history of the event.

What we do is transcendent and it’s what binds us all one to another as humans in one large human family.” Stephen J. Forman, M.D.

Family was on Jon’s mind when he donated a couple of years ago, around the same time his grandmother was diagnosed with leukemia. Jon had already lost his grandfather to brain cancer and did not think twice about helping another family in need.

“To give someone else that chance I wish I had with my grandfather … that means the world to me,” said Jon before the reunion.

When he discovered that the recipient of his lifesaving gift was an Emmy-winning TV producer, Jon seemed unfazed. What mattered to him was that Steven Bochco could now spend more time with his family.

“To extend the amount of time that he can share with his family is obviously one of the big drivers behind why I did this,” said Jon.

Family also has a powerful — and difficult — meaning for Dominick. He was diagnosed with leukemia twice, and throughout his long and painful medical journey, Dominick’s family life was unstable.

That began to change in 2014, when he started a second round of treatment for leukemia. While getting care at City of Hope, he found family when his path crossed with a staff psychologist, Jeanelle Folbrecht, Ph.D.

“After reviewing his case and talking to those providing care for him, I realized he didn't need a psychologist,” said Jeanelle. “He needed a mom.”

Dominick now lives with Jeanelle, her husband Eric and their two sons Kevin and Kyle. The next chapter in Dominick’s evolving family story now involves Vanessa.

When the two were finally introduced to one another at the reunion, it was as relatives.

“Vanessa is now Dominick’s only known biological relative,” said Joseph Rosenthal, M.D., M.H.C.M., professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at City of Hope, as he introduced them. “Really the ultimate expression of being a family.”

Vanessa trembled as she met Dominick for the first time, wrapping her arms around him with unsuppressed joy.

“We were unrelated and now my blood is inside of yours and we’re somehow related,” said Vanessa as she described meeting Dominick for the first time. “I have a new little brother. It’s amazing. I love it.”

Dominick’s response to having met his donor — and a potential new member of his extended family — was a broad smile and one word: “Cool.”

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Learn more about City of Hope's bone marrow transplant program. If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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