Australian patient travels 9,000 miles for a cure

March 7, 2019 | by Michael Easterling

Lobster fisherman David Thompson was standing outside Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth in his native western Australia when he came to what he calls a “T-junction” — a crossroad — in his life.
 
“If I turned left, I was back in that hospital starting chemotherapy and radiation. If I turned right, I came to America and to City of Hope. I chose City of Hope.” This was on a Friday in October 2017. The next morning, Thompson, 61, and his son Brent were sitting in the “carpark” — the parking lot — on City of Hope’s Duarte, California, campus calling the Center for International Medicine for an appointment. Thompson had never been to America before. It was a bold move, typical of the risk-taking, gregarious and quintessentially Australian Thompson.
 
“I was determined to whip this thing,” he said. “You have to grab the bull by the horns and have a crack. It’s either that, or I’m six feet under.”
 
The “thing” for Thompson was Stage 4 oropharyngeal cancer in his throat and lungs that doctors in Perth had diagnosed him with just days before. It was a tumor that was slowly strangling him. After complaining about a sore throat for over a year, he finally made a doctor’s appointment at his wife Sue’s urging. The couple, who have known each other since they were 14, have been married for 37 years and have two sons, David and Brent, and three grandchildren.

Living the Dream

Thompson and his family own the Lobster Shack, the largest privately owned exporter of Western rock lobster in Australia. It’s a business and job that Thompson loves.
 
He was at sea on his vessel, 65-foot twin screw The Anaconda, when he got the call from his doctor.
 
“I get a call at 9:30-10 in the morning from our local ‘country’ hospital, where I had an appointment later that day. The caller said, ‘Can you come in now?’”
 
Being out to sea, Thompson was unable to come any earlier, so he and his wife made his 4:30 afternoon appointment. “I told my crew to get the bait off the boat for me and that I would be back tomorrow,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be eight months before I would return.”

His Journey to City of Hope

How Thompson came to City of Hope from 9,000 miles away is nothing short of extraordinary. He was breaking the news to the company’s salesperson based in Hobart, Tasmania, when she mentioned another one of their business partners in the abalone industry, Vince, an American they had once done business with, also based in Tasmania, but who grew up in Pasadena, California, and divided his time between the two.
 
“Vince rang me up after talking to Felicia and said, ‘You’re going to City of Hope,’” Thompson said. It turned out that Vince’s sister Cathy Childress in Pasadena was friends and one-time co-workers with City of Hope’s Clare Williams, senior manager of Patient Liaison and Special Services. Williams contacted City of Hope’s Center for International Medicine, which worked out the arrangements for Thompson to be seen by a physician and was instrumental in getting him into the clinical trial that ultimately saved his life.

Immunotherapy Is the Future

Thompson is a patient of Erminia Massarelli, M.D., Ph.D., M.S., associate clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research and a specialist in cancers of the head and neck.
 
Massarelli is overseeing a clinical trial with patients with Thompson's disease using a combination of two immunotherapy drugs. Typically, the wait time to start treatment on a clinical trial ranges between two weeks and one month. Thompson was in the trial within a week of his original diagnosis in Australia.
 
“David has responded remarkably well to the immunotherapy,” Massarelli said. “He’s very determined.” Of the eight patients who were part of the trial at City of Hope when Thompson was enrolled, he is one of just two still in the trial and the only one to have received a significant benefit. (Some patients in the trial did not benefit, and others were taken out of the trial because of complications.) Thompson said he considers himself to have been given “a miracle life” — a second chance.

THOMPSON Changed the Protocol

The protocol for the clinical trial called for a dosage once a week. With Thompson being so far from home and wanting to check on the family business, he inquired about a different dosing schedule.
 
“I wanted to go home and see my loved ones, so I convinced them to let me take the drug every two weeks,” Thompson said. “I traveled home and came back. I was the guinea pig.”
 
Massarelli credits her patient with being brave enough to be the first one on the trial with a different schedule that will eventually help other patients spend more time with their loved ones instead of coming weekly to the infusion center.

‘Here to Save Your Life’

Thompson was given six weeks to live after his original diagnosis in Perth. It’s now been more than a year, and he continues to thrive. He and his wife have taken up temporary residence in Arcadia, California, and he goes back to Australia every chance he gets. They enjoy driving up and down Route 66 in a 1969 Big Block stick shift Chevrolet Camaro, and Thompson is learning to speak Chinese for when he returns to the job he loves. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do you want to live or do you want to die?’” he said. “These days, I don’t have it that tough.” He remains in awe of the kindness of strangers that led him here, and the treatment he’s received at City of Hope.
 
“My doctor in Australia said at first she didn’t want me to go, she thought I was making a mistake not staying home and getting treated,” he said. “When I went back home after eight months and saw her, she burst into tears. She could not believe how healthy I was, how good I looked. She told me I had made the right decision to come to City of Hope.
 
“City of Hope is here to save your life. That’s the nuts and bolts of it,” Thompson said. “I don’t care where you go, City of Hope is the best place in the world. Any patient, anywhere in the world, should do what I did: ‘Turn right,’ and head to City of Hope.”
 
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