Bond between doctor and patient speeds way to a cure

For John Gandolfo, today was the day — May 30, 2018, aka day zero, when he would receive a blood stem cell transplant to beat back leukemia.
He was surrounded by his wife, Mary, and other family members. City of Hope’s chaplain blessed a very special bag. Inside were 8 million cells taken from Gandolfo’s younger brother, Jim, a perfect-10 match as a donor.
The sanctified moment passed, and the atmosphere in the room turned celebratory. The driving beat of a pop song resounded as a nurse began the infusion.
“We were right at the beginning,” Gandolfo said. “Excited to be there — so hopeful, confident, trusting and grateful.”
Gandolfo | City of Hope
John Gandolfo
The gratitude endures to this day. The care he received at City of Hope, bolstered by his faith and the support of his wife and children, saw him through. Gandolfo remains cancer-free two years later. To support a potential cure for leukemia, he raised money this year, an effort that garnered significant funding despite disruption from the coronavirus pandemic.

A Medical Emergency

The trouble started when the Gandolfos were on an early-2018 trip to Kenya, a reward for sales at one of John Gandolfo’s car dealerships. Bruises popped up on his hand; he was fatigued, short of breath. Upon their return home to Columbia, South Carolina, Mary urged her husband to see his doctor.
Alarming blood test results at the end of February sent him to the emergency room. His physician feared a stroke was imminent. Timely treatment quelled the immediate problem, but his diagnosis was an ominous one: acute myeloid leukemia.
Chemotherapy close to home brought the disease to heel, but another step was needed — a blood stem cell transplant, a treatment that brings the immune system down to nothing and then rebuilds it with healthy cells from the patient or a donor.

Finding the Right Help

An oncologist friend shared a publication rating the most successful transplant programs, setting the Gandolfos’ sights to the west.
“All roads led to City of Hope,” John Gandolfo said.
City of Hope is a pioneer of the blood stem cell transplant that produces unparalleled patient outcomes for the procedure. At the time, the transplant program had shown better than expected results for patient survival 13 years in a row. Since then, the program has extended that streak to 15 years, making it the only one in the nation to achieve that mark.
At City of Hope, Gandolfo was under the care of Ahmed Aribi, M.D., assistant clinical professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, and Guido Marcucci, M.D., a professor in the same department, as well as chair and professor of the Department of Hematologic Malignancies Translational Science and director of the Gehr Family Center for Leukemia Research.
Guido Marcucci, M.D.
Exactly 90 days after his diagnosis, Gandolfo reached day zero — transplant day. While his recovery yielded moments of pain, he stayed on an upward trajectory and dodged serious, lasting side effects.
“I’m a poster child for City of Hope,” he said. “That place has meant the world to me and my family.”
Another 89 days post-transplant and the Gandolfos were on their way back to South Carolina.

Changing the Way Leukemia Is Treated

Something funny had happened on the way through recovery — John Gandolfo befriended one of his physicians, Guido Marcucci.
A chance meeting at the gym led to dinner at Marcucci’s favorite local Italian restaurant (on him) — the first in a series of social calls. Gandolfo and Marcucci established a strong rapport built on humor and mutual respect.
“If you take a look at Guido’s CV, you see all the papers he’s authored, the chairs he’s held, the research he’s doing,” Gandolfo said. “You go, ‘Wow! Who’s this?’ Then you talk to him, and he’s the most down-to-earth, warm, friendly individual that you ever met.”
One day, the Gandolfos toured Marcucci’s lab and learned about his work developing drugs to defeat leukemia without the rigors of transplant. John Gandolfo wanted to help push that research forward.
“The two relationships, doctor-patient and friend, were complemented by a third,” Marcucci said. “That is this partnership for defeating leukemia.”
Gandolfo found a way to make a difference with his business contacts and sales success. For the month of March 2020, $100 from the sale of every car at his four dealerships would go toward Marcucci’s lab. Gandolfo also asked people across his professional network to donate and publicized the drive with brochures, a website and a TV commercial.
For the first half of the month, things looked great. Then the COVID-19 outbreak asserted itself.
“Everything stopped right around March 16,” Gandolfo said. “I sold probably 30% fewer cars at our big store than we had anticipated.”
Even so, the momentum of the fundraiser rolled on. Donations from sales were augmented by gifts from Gandolfo’s colleagues as well as strangers moved by his story, ranging from $25 to $10,000. The ultimate tally was more than $137,000.
Asked about his motivation, Gandolfo pointed once more to Marcucci’s résumé.
“The very last line says, rather humbly, ‘I just want to make leukemia a thing of the past,’” he said. “Because of Guido, his work, his team, that’s why we did this fundraiser. Finding the cure will make what I’ve gone through a thing of the past.”
If you or someone you know is interested in giving back to City of Hope through a virtual activity please contact Kevin McQuhae, Senior Director, Third-Party Events at [email protected] or 626.542.0388.