College student and retired teacher to thank stem cell donors they’ve never met for saving their lives during City of Hope’s 45th Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion

Letisia Marquez
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The reunion — held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic — brings together blood cancer survivors and their donors for the first time, as well as other grateful transplant patients, donors, families and medical staff.
(Media can R.S.V.P. to view the virtual reunion at noon on Friday, Oct. 15, via Media Contact.)
DUARTE, Calif. — As a 16-year-old high school sophomore, Julian Castañeda was focused on running track — specifically, trying to run a mile in under five minutes. He was also planning to attend two camps that summer that would help him prepare for the rigors of college.
Despite being diagnosed with precursor B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 10 and receiving chemotherapy on and off for three and a half years, Castañeda had been in remission for two years. He had moved on from that difficult experience.
But in March 2017, Castañeda and his mother, Erica Palacios, again received devastating news — the leukemia had returned. Castañeda received chemotherapy for a few months, but the cancer kept proliferating. Castañeda would need a hematopoietic stem cell transplant (more commonly referred to as a bone marrow transplant, or BMT) this time to put his cancer back into remission.
“It was heartbreaking. I knew at that point that all my plans for sophomore year would be gone,” Castañeda recalled.
But Castañeda was determined to get his life back. This was possible thanks to Johannes Eppler, 27, of Breisach, Germany, who joined the bone marrow registry via DKMS, an international nonprofit that is dedicated to the fight against blood cancers and blood disorders, including the recruitment of bone marrow donors. Castañeda received a bone marrow transplant on Aug. 2, 2017, putting the cancer into remission.
“He has a big heart,” Palacios said about Eppler. “He’s an angel. He saved my son. I am thankful that people are willing to [donate].”
Castañeda, who grew up in Bakersfield, California and was treated by City of Hope’s Joseph Rosenthal, M.D., M.H.C.M., the Barron Hilton Chair in Pediatrics, is now 20 years old and a junior at California State University Northridge. He also founded Bags of Love Foundation, a nonprofit that has delivered more than 200 care packages to young cancer patients in treatment and has provided $11,000 in scholarships to survivors.
On Friday, Oct. 15, Castañeda will meet his donor for the first time virtually during City of Hope’s BMT Reunion. City of Hope, a pioneer and leader in BMT, has hosted a Celebration of Life for bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplant recipients, their families and donors for more than 40 years. The celebration honors children and adult cancer survivors, including those who have received autologous transplants, which use a patient’s own stem cells, and those who received an allogeneic procedure, which require a bone marrow or stem cell donation from a related or unrelated donor.
What began with a birthday cake and a single candle representing a patient’s first year free from cancer has grown into an annual extravaganza that draws thousands of cancer survivors, donors and families from around the world, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff who help them through the lifesaving therapy.
Each year, patient-donor meetings are the event’s emotional highlight. Many recipients, though overwhelmed with curiosity and the need to express their gratitude, can only dream of meeting the stranger who saved their lives. City of Hope is making that dream come true for Castañeda, as well as Dona Garrish, a Fullerton, California resident and retired school teacher. Her donor was Michael Fischer, 35, of Wölkau, Germany.
Garrish, 75, received her transplant on March 22, 2017, after it was delayed several times due to infections and other complications that prevented her from going through with the treatment. Garrish, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, felt a strong connection to Fischer from the first time a City of Hope employee told her a German male, whom she had never met, was a perfect match for her. She refers to him as her “gift from God” and her “angel on Earth.”
“He unknowingly encouraged me to fight harder and not to become discouraged, as someday I wanted to meet him and thank him,” she added. Garrish recalled watching two patients meeting their donors at the 2017 BMT Reunion. The reunions were held in front of City of Hope Helford Clinical Research Hospital, where Garrish was recovering from her transplant.
While tethered to her IV pole, Garrish looked down from the hospital’s sixth floor and said, “That’s what I want to do.”  
“City of Hope nurses, doctors and staff were constantly there supporting me every step of the way, even when I couldn’t take a single step,” said Garrish, who was treated by City of Hope’s Liana Nikolaenko, M.D. “The timing was urgent, my battle was rough and long, but I live, breathe and enjoy life today because of City of Hope.”
Other event highlights include videos of grateful patients wearing the signature BMT buttons that display the number of years since their transplants, comedy by City of Hope BMT patient Sean Kent and a dance/song performed by BMT nurses, known as the Marrowettes. There will be special guest appearances by a Los Angeles Dodger and Katharina Harf, executive chairwoman of DKMS U.S., to congratulate patients, their donors and the BMT program.
“During our annual BMT reunion, we express our most heartfelt thanks to the many selfless individuals who each year donate their bone marrow or stem cells to save a person’s life,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., director of City of Hope’s Hematologic Malignancies Research Institute and former chair of its Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. “Whether the donor is a patient’s family member or a person she or he has never met, we are all extremely grateful that these donors took the time to donate and gave someone a second chance at life.”
About City of Hope’s BMT program
City of Hope’s BMT program has performed more than 17,000 transplants, making it one of the largest and most successful programs in the nation. The institution has the largest BMT program in California, performing over 700 transplants annually, and is among the top three hospitals in the nation in terms of total transplants performed.
Over the years, City of Hope has also helped pioneer several BMT innovations. In addition to being one of the first institutions to perform BMTs in older adults, it was one of the first programs to show that BMTs could be safely performed for patients with HIV. City of Hope has had growing success with nonrelated matched donors and, most recently, half matched family donors.
City of Hope’s BMT program is the only one in the nation that has had one-year survival above the expected rate for 15 consecutive years, based on analysis by the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.
City of Hope was also one of the first programs to develop a treatment for prevention of cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common and potentially deadly infection after transplant, which has nearly eliminated the threat of CMV for BMT patients. The institution successfully conducted clinical trials of a CMV vaccine developed at City of Hope. As a pioneer in the development of CAR T cells to treat cancer, City of Hope is also testing how this form of cancer immunotherapy can help patients have a more successful transplant.
In addition, Be The Match at City of Hope last year added more than 13,000 new volunteers willing to save a life when they match a patient who needs a bone marrow transplant. In total, nearly 300,000 potential donors have signed up via City of Hope, motivated by a patient at the cancer center. Be The Match encourages healthy individuals between the ages of 18 and 40 to take the first step of registering by texting COHSAVES to 61474. To learn more about the donation process, visit Be The Match at City of Hope’s website.
About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent biomedical research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Founded in 1913, City of Hope is a leader in bone marrow transplantation and immunotherapy such as CAR T cell therapy. City of Hope’s translational research and personalized treatment protocols advance care throughout the world. Human synthetic insulin, monoclonal antibodies and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs are based on technology developed at the institution. A National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, City of Hope is ranked among the nation’s “Best Hospitals” in cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Its main campus is located near Los Angeles, with additional locations throughout Southern California and in Arizona. Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) became a part of City of Hope in 2016. AccessHopeTM, a subsidiary launched in 2019, serves employers and their health care partners by providing access to NCI-designated cancer center expertise. For more information about City of Hope, follow us on FacebookTwitterYouTube or Instagram.
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