Transplant survivors meet donors for first time at City of Hope’s 41st Annual Bone Marrow Transplant ReunionApril 17, 2017
A father of three and an aplastic anemia survivor who helped wife beat breast cancer join thousands to thank donors at the April 28 event
DUARTE, Calif. — 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 just returned, 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 City of Hope’s 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.
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.
On Friday, April 28, Ramirez will finally thank his donor at City of Hope’s 41st Annual Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) Reunion. For Ramirez, that day couldn’t come sooner.
“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. “Every time I think about it, I just want to cry … I really do want to meet him and thank him so much because without him, I don’t know if I would still be here.”
Another patient, Evan Braggs, will also meet his donor at the BMT reunion
Rancho Cucamonga resident Evan Braggs, 32, is also elated to meet his donor at this year’s BMT reunion.
It’s long overdue – Braggs received his transplant in 2005. He was 20 years old and battling a devastating blood disease, aplastic anemia. The disease prevents a person’s blood marrow from making an adequate amount of new blood cells, and can eventually lead to severe heart problems.
As Braggs played basketball one day, he ran out of breath and fell to the ground.
“I had to lie down for like 15 minutes,” he recalled. The next morning, his father took him to a local hospital, where medical staff tested his blood twice because they wanted to make sure the diagnosis was correct. Braggs’ hemoglobin levels were so low that he was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit and given a blood transfusion.
“One of the nurses mentioned to me I was about two weeks away from having a heart attack,” he added.
The diagnosis shocked Braggs. He had never had as much as a broken bone, and at the time, he ran hurdles for the Mt. San Antonio College track team. He also played basketball and worked out every day. “Looking at me, you would not have known how sick I was,” he added.
At City of Hope, Ryotaro Nakamura, M.D., associate professor of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation, treated Braggs with two serums in an attempt to boost his bone marrow production. He also received blood transfusions every few weeks. But in order to cure the anemia, he would need a BMT.
Braggs was determined not to let his treatment affect his school, and he worked closely with Nakamura to schedule his transplant during his summer break. He spent that summer in the hospital as he recovered from the transplant.
Those weeks at City of Hope helped Braggs value his young life, as well as appreciate the multitude of people who helped him regain his health.
“I’m very thankful that his gentleman took the time out of his life to do something like that … and also thankful for so many people that were involved in the process of getting me along, from my parents to Dr. Nakamura to the nurses to the nurse practitioners,” Braggs said.
He never thought he could pay any of that kindness forward, but the opportunity came several years later.
Braggs had just met a young woman, Natalia Melina, when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in January 2014.
The 32-year-old woman recalls she told Braggs about her diagnosis, and that he didn’t have to be involved since he had been through his own treatment before. Braggs said he wouldn’t have it any other way, and recommended she receive treatment at City of Hope, which she did. The two eventually started dating, and when she received chemotherapy and lost her hair, Braggs shaved his head, too.
“I was able to speak about all the things you go through with treatment – losing your hair, chemo-sickness, fatigue, things of that nature – and help put her at ease and get her to the next part of treatment,” he added.
The couple married in 2015.
“We reflect now and think that we’ve already experienced those difficult moments most people can only talk about in their vows,” Braggs said. “In sickness or in health. For better or for worse. We went through the worst and stayed together through all of it.”
BMTs offer a second chance for people with life-threatening blood cancers and other hematologic malignancies. Since 1976, more than 13,000 patients from virtually every state and dozens of countries have undergone bone marrow, cord blood or stem cell transplants at City of Hope.
City of Hope has the only transplant program in the nation to achieve 12 consecutive reporting years of “over performance” in one-year overall patient survival, according to the most recent data from the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.
In addition, City of Hope is bridging the way to the next frontier in treating these cancer patients: using immunotherapy to train a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Amid the transplant survivors at the reunion are a handful of patients who represent a new generation of blood cancer survivors: patients treated in clinical trials with T cell immunotherapy. These patients’ own immune cells were extracted, modified to enable them to recognize and attack cancer cells, and then reinfused back into the patients.
About City of Hope’s BMT reunion
City of Hope has hosted an annual reunion for BMT survivors such as Ramirez and Braggs for the past 41 years. What began with a birthday cake and a single candle representing a patient’s first year free from cancer has grown into an annual picnic extravaganza that draws more than 4,000 survivors, donors and families from around the world, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff who help them through the lifesaving therapy.
The 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 strangers who saved their lives. City of Hope makes that dream come true for two patients every year.
“The reunion highlights what research, and exceptional nursing and physician care, have accomplished to save the lives of patients,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D, Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope. “It emphasizes we are all connected to each other and the many joys in life that a patient is able to experience once they have been cured by a transplant.”
Ramirez, Braggs and their donors will be the highlight of a 10 a.m. news conference on the City of Hope campus – the Argyros Family Garden of Hope, located in front of City of Hope Helford Clinical Research Hospital.
Later that afternoon, City of Hope will host a program of entertainment for survivors, donors and families.
About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Designated as one of only 47 comprehensive cancer centers, the highest recognition bestowed by the National Cancer Institute, City of Hope is also a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, with research and treatment protocols that advance care throughout the world. City of Hope is located in Duarte, California, just northeast of Los Angeles, with community clinics throughout Southern California. It is ranked as one of "America's Best Hospitals" in cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Founded in 1913, City of Hope is a pioneer in the fields of bone marrow transplantation, diabetes and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs based on technology developed at the institution.
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