‘An Incredible, Lifesaving Gift’: Bone Marrow Recipient to Meet Donor for the First Time

May 9, 2018 | by Letisia Marquez

In the days leading up to his bone marrow transplant, Gary Stromberg lay in a hospital bed at City of Hope, too weak to walk, his energy and appetite gone. The chemotherapy he received to wipe out his acute myeloid leukemia and clear the way for a donor’s healthy stem cells had also killed good cells, leading to his declining health. 
Stromberg’s son, David, 24 at the time, sat on his father's bed and cried. They held hands. “You’re not going to die,” Stromberg recalled David told him. “I won’t let you.”

Giving Thanks

On July 18, 2012, Stromberg underwent the transplant — he received stem cells from Alex Kikis, then 33, a Russian native who had immigrated to Israel. Stromberg, who co-founded Gibson & Stromberg, a large and influential public relations firm in the 1960s and 1970s — representing such luminaries as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, and Boyz II Men — credits Kikis with saving his life.
On Friday, May 11, at City of Hope’s 42nd Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, Stromberg will meet Kikis for the first time and thank him for donating his stem cells to a person he'd never met on the other side of the world. 
“I have two children who continue to have a father thanks to Alex,” Stromberg, 76, said as he held back tears. “I want to let him know that. My children would like to thank him, too.”
That’s a sentiment that Stephen J. Forman, M.D, Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope and leader of its Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute, has heard often since the first Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) Reunion in 1976.
“City of Hope’s annual BMT reunion celebrates the incredible lifesaving gift that so many donors give our cancer patients who are in need of a transplant, one that they hope leads to a cure,” Forman said. “Because of these selfless donors, as well as City of Hope research that helped pioneer the BMT transplant process, and our exceptional nursing and physician care, our patients are often able to achieve a cure and spend many more cherished moments with their families.”  

A Shocking Diagnosis

Stromberg was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on March 12, 2012. A couple of months before that, he had started to have trouble breathing and felt weak. A doctor told Stromberg, who gave up smoking 35 years ago, that he had emphysema. He was prescribed inhalers to help him breathe, but they didn’t work. Stromberg decided to see a pulmonary doctor, who ran blood tests. Stromberg recalled the doctor told him: “You don’t have emphysema. You have leukemia, and you need to get to a hospital right now, and I don’t mean tomorrow!” 
Stromberg started chemotherapy that night.
“I was assigned an oncologist who told me that I was very sick and that I was only a couple of weeks away from dying had I not been treated right away,” he said.
Stromberg’s cancer went into remission after a month of chemotherapy, but he was told the leukemia would return and he would need a bone marrow transplant to survive. A friend in the entertainment industry encouraged him to visit City of Hope, where he met Forman.

A Spiritual Journey

As Stromberg waited for the transplant at City of Hope, Kikis spent six hours undergoing a nonsurgical procedure known as apheresis, which is similar to donating blood (the procedure involves collecting peripheral blood stem cells for the transplant). A medical courier then transported the stem cells from Israel to City of Hope and Stromberg was infused within 24 hours. 
“It took about a month laying in intensive care for the new bone marrow to take effect,” Stromberg said. “During that time, I was very susceptible to all kinds of bad stuff, but I was very fortunate and the problems I had were minor.”
Stromberg said he also felt the power of prayer during that time. A recovering alcoholic, he’s been a member of a 12-step recovery program for over 35 years.
“When I was at the hospital, I was too weak to talk to anyone or have visitors but I had my iPad and I started receiving messages that I was being prayed for by people all over the world,” Stromberg said. “I have Muslim friends in New Jersey who held a prayer vigil for me in their mosque. A mass was said at Notre Dame for me. I had Jewish friends who put my name in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. 
“I’m not a religious guy but I’m a spiritual person and I could feel it in my bones that I was being healed by these prayers,” he added. “Dr. Forman keeps telling me that I am a miracle, and I think he’s right.”
The transplant affected Stromberg in other ways, too. A vegetarian since the late 1970s, he started to crave meat after the transplant. He believes it’s because his blood type changed to that of his donor’s, and he now has a blood type that craves meat.
“On the way home from the hospital, we actually stopped at an In-N-Out Burger,” he added. “And I had the first hamburger that I’ve had in like 30 years. I’ve now become a meat eater.”
Stromberg is eager to share these and other stories with Kikis. 
“Alex saved my life for no apparent reason,” Stromberg added. “He didn’t get anything out of this. He just did it out of his kindness and generosity.”
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