Transplant recipient gets rare chance to meet stem cell donor who saved her life

April 22, 2015
Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion at City of Hope celebrates survival, science, and the chance to give back
DUARTE, Calif. — A Los Angeles teen looking forward to wrapping up her sophomore year in high school and a West Point graduate who is now president of his own financial company have never met, but they have more in common than they would otherwise imagine.

More than a decade after joining the bone marrow registry during a blood drive at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Phil Ratcliff received a call that he was a match for a leukemia patient. He’d left his military career to start his own financial business in Ohio, married and had three children since signing up for the registry. One thing hadn’t changed, however – his worldview.

“Why wouldn’t you sign up to help somebody or help some kid?” said Ratcliff, 34. “I think the world would be a better place if more people helped each other out.”

On Friday, May 1, at City of Hope’s 39th Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, Ratcliff will meet for the first time Yesenia Portillo, the 15-year-old bone marrow transplant recipient whose life he helped save. Yesenia’s mother, Rosalba Portillo, is still overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting her daughter’s donor. “There’s not enough words to thank him for what he did,” she said. “He stepped up for her without even knowing her.”

Like Portillo and her mother, many of the other 4,500 patients and family members who will attend the event understand the importance of others’ generosity. Without the gift of stem cells– sometimes from strangers hundreds of miles or half a world away – they would have had few options.

Bone marrow transplants offer a second chance at life for people with life-threatening blood cancers and other hematologic malignancies. But many recipients, though overwhelmed with curiosity and the need to express their gratitude, can only dream of meeting the strangers who saved their lives. Each year, City of Hope makes that dream come true for two patients. This year, a 9-year-old survivor – and her grateful family -- also will meet her donor, who hails from Germany.

The meetings are the public focal point of City of Hope’s annual Celebration of Life. Other meetings, and reunions, will take place throughout the event, attended by thousands of bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplant recipients, their families and donors. All will celebrate second chances, scientific breakthroughs and transplant anniversaries. In what’s becoming a reunion tradition, individuals who were not a match for their loved ones frequently take the opportunity to join the bone marrow registry through City of Hope’s Be the Match chapter. Some of these participants have gone on in the last year to become donors themselves.

City of Hope helped pioneer bone marrow transplantation nearly four decades ago and is now a leader in bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplant. Not only has it recently launched its Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute, City of Hope has the only transplant program in the nation to achieve 10 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.

Now, City of Hope is bridging the way to the next frontier in treating these cancers, using immunotherapy. Amid the thousands of 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 re-infused back into the patients.

“The reunion is a motivation that leaves us in awe of the many patients we’ve been able to help, but also humbled and focused on the patients currently in our care and those who will count on us in the future,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. “We don’t have any results so good that they cannot be improved. We’re always focused on how we can do this better. We’re never satisfied.”

Donors and recipients will have their first meetings during a ceremony at 10 a.m. May 1 at City of Hope.
That meeting will be followed by a program of entertainment for attending families. Among the highlights:
  • A chance to mingle with a special guest from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
  • Comedy from cancer survivor and comedian Sean Kent, who will be celebrating 12 years as a cancer survivor.
  • Musical performance by George Winston.

For more details and to attend, please contact Nicole White, senior media relations specialist, at 626-418-3398 or
[email protected]

Nicole White
[email protected]
About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Designated as a comprehensive cancer center, 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 nation. City of Hope’s main hospital is located in Duarte, California, just northeast of Los Angeles, with clinics in 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 and genetics.