Gus, leukemia survivor

Gus is one of the guys who, when everyone is running out of the fire, is running into it. Fit and strong, Gus is a veteran Los Angeles firefighter with the Hazardous Materials Unit in San Pedro. Saving lives is his business. Only he never expected to be on the receiving end.

During a routine physical when he was 41, Gus’s blood work led to an unexpected diagnosis: Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). “It was a game changer,” he recalls. “That was really, really difficult to wrap my head around.”

Gus came to City of Hope and began receiving the drug Gleevec, which put him into remission. Yet his best chance at long-term survival was to undergo a bone marrow transplant. To find a match you need someone with the same ethnic background. No one in his family proved a suitable; neither did his team at the firehouse, nor many potential donors during a year of searching. At last a donor was found in Wichita, Kansas. The harvested stem cells of Jesus Soto were flown to City of Hope and infused into Gus.

Gus is a surfer: “My career as a firefighter is incredibly stressful. Being able to get on the water’s my release. That’s where I check all my baggage at the door and paddle out and free my brain.” Before his transplant operation, Gus remembers, he went to his favorite surfing spot. Aware this could be the last time he’d ever go out on his board, he counted the steps to the water. But he also remembers thinking, “I’m going to beat this. I’m going to come back and retrace these steps.”

“And I’m happy to say I’m here, that I was able to do it,” he says, smiling broadly. He attributes no small part of his complete recovery to the powerful love of his wife and two children, and to the care of Dr. David Snyder, associate chair of the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, who understood Gus as a person and allowed him to return to the ocean as soon as possible. 

It was miraculous. He literally gave me my life back. With City of Hope, it’s more than the practice of medicine. They understand what it takes to put you together again. Gus Perez