Sergio Ramirez, center, and his family
When Sergio Ramirez came to City of Hope in early 2013, the acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) he thought he had overcome after three years of treatment had recently returned. And it had come back stronger.
A biopsy revealed that 82 percent of his bone marrow cells were leukemic cells. The Los Angeles father of three boys was terrified about what loomed ahead.
“If the first three years of chemotherapy and maintenance did not work, I thought, ‘What am I going to go through now?’” said Ramirez, 34, who knew that patients whose ALL has relapsed have only a roughly 15 percent chance of survival. ALL is a cancer that starts in white blood cells, produces cancerous cells and can quickly spread to a body’s organs.
“I was terrified but I didn’t show that because of my kids. I just wanted them to see that Daddy was strong and that he was going to be there for them,” he added.
Ramirez’s doctor had referred him to City of Hope to take part in an immunotherapy trial led by Anthony Stein, M.D., co-director of the Gehr Family Center for Leukemia Research.
Ramirez took two 28-day cycles of a drug, which spurred his immune cells to attack the leukemia cells and put his cancer in remission.
But Ramirez still needed a bone marrow transplant so he could remain cancer-free, and received one a few weeks later. He’s thought often about the unrelated donor who came forward to save the life of a person he had never met.
Today, Ramirez finally thanked his donor, Michael Palacios, 27, of Los Angeles, at City of Hope’s 41st annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.
“I’m here with my kids, thanks mostly because of his generosity,” said Ramirez, who recalled that a donor who had first been identified didn’t go through with the donation. “My biggest fear was that my sons would lose their dad. It was also my biggest motivation to keep on fighting.”
The night before he was scheduled to donate bone marrow, Michael Palacios couldn’t sleep.
He was too restless and excited. He kept thinking about the City of Hope patient with a terminal illness, lying in a hospital bed anxiously waiting for Palacios’ bone marrow.
“I was so excited to get this done and be a part of someone’s life, to give them a second chance at life,” said Palacios, who was 24 at the time of the donation in 2013.
Palacios, now 27, has thought often about the patient whose life he helped save.
“I can’t imagine how happy he is to celebrate life, and to be with his family,” he added. “It’s an indescribable feeling. It’s something that actually came out of my flesh, out of my own body, and I gave it to someone else.”
Palacios signed up to be a donor in 2011. At the time, he was a volunteer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he played games, read books and provided other entertainment to children being treated at the hospital. A volunteer supervisor suggested to Palacios that he sign up for the Be the Match
bone marrow registry. Eager to help, he joined that same day.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved to help people,” he said.
He recalled that as a 5-year-old, his mother would take him to visit her friends, many of them young mothers like her.
“Their babies would cry and I would try to comfort them by putting toys in their cribs,” he said.
In high school, Palacios volunteered with churches to feed the hungry. In college, he helped make meals for homeless men and women, as well as adults going through alcohol and drug rehabilitation at a Hollywood church.
But knowing that he helped save someone’s life through bone marrow donation is the highlight of his young life.
“Donating was a very exciting and humbling experience,” he added. “It showed me that a lot of people are working very hard on a daily basis to save people’s lives and to inspire others.”
“I still haven’t fully processed what I actually did,” Palacios said. “I’ve done a lot of things over the years – working with nonprofit organizations, different churches and doing missionary work in different countries. But I can legitimately say I saved someone’s life.”
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