Yesterday, as detailed in the New York Daily News, 30 former and current pediatric patients gathered at Memorial Sloan Kettering for a special high school graduation ceremony. Each year, two students are selected to give convocation speeches. Below are transcripts of this year’s student speeches.
Dominick Sarappa with Paul Meyers, Vice Chairman, Department of Pediatrics at Memorial Sloan Kettering
This speech is by graduating student Dominick Sarappa (pictured), who talks about his bone marrow transplant and memorable experience with Pediatrics Day Hospital Medical Director Farid Boulad.
When I first came to Sloan for a consultation with the bone marrow transplant team, I expected super genius doctors that resembled Albert Einstein — people who were smart, serious, and a little socially inept. My expectations were quickly debunked. When my family and I were walking down the hall looking for the consultation room, a nurse approached us asking, “May I help you?” We told her that we had an appointment to meet with a Dr. Boulad.
Nonchalantly, she pointed down the hallway and there he was: a middle-aged man, on the floor, rolling a toy car back and forth. I could see the color in his personality immediately by the red-framed glasses and perky green bowtie that he donned so fashionably. Next to him was a kid, about three years old, his bliss alight on the grin in his face. Taken back, I was speechless. I could not believe that this was the man that directed the pediatric day hospital in one of the most acclaimed cancer hospitals in the world.
What followed changed my life, and I carry it to this day. Dr. Boulad, in his struggle to rise from the ground, smiled, saying, “The minute you lose touch with your inner child is the minute you lose all hope.” Going for a bone marrow transplant was an appalling thought, but knowing that I would have someone like that overlooking my procedure gave me an inexplicable sense of tranquility, and I was ready.
Shortly after being admitted, I discovered the true characteristics behind the mysterious persona of that doctor. He and I always drove my mother up the wall, and thought it was the greatest. For instance, once when we went to the exam room for my checkup, I sat on the chair, and Dr. Boulad exclaimed, “Prepare for the rollercoaster!” Instantly, he jerked the chair to the ceiling, and flung it backwards, as far as it went. At this point I clung onto the chair, pretending to fall. My mom had an anxiety attack, screaming, “You’re going to kill him!” I just laughed.
Days like these were the reason I was able to prevail through this arduous period of my life. Dr. Boulad’s madness proved to be an unexpectedly essential part of the treatment in that it distracted me from the harsh realities from my illness and allowed me to concentrate on enjoying life.
When I returned to school six months after my bone marrow transplant, I was kind of intimidated. I had missed my whole freshman year of high school, so I did not get the chance to really be a first-year high schooler. I attended a high school in which each class consisted of about 300 kids, and kids came from various towns. My middle school class was only about 70 kids, so it was kind of hard to find people whom I was close with in middle school. My first day of school, which was the first day of sophomore year, was daunting. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know who to talk to, and I didn’t know what I needed to do for any of my classes. In fact, the first week or so of school I sat alone during lunch. Almost three years later, I will be presiding over my high school graduation as president of the senior class.
In that lapse of time from my first day of school to graduation, I’ve learned that you have to take chances in life, and that you can’t just wait around for things to happen. We have all been called here today to celebrate the high school graduation of past and present Sloan Kettering patients — but is that the only reason? We have all been given a second chance at life, some of us a third chance or even more, and that’s why we are here today. We are here to celebrate our lives and to look forward to the successful futures that each and every one of us will experience. We triumphed over cancer and ever since then have faced life headstrong, striving to make the best of it, knowing that every second counts.
Sydney Sims addresses the Convocation audience
This speech is by graduating student Sydney Sims (pictured), who was treated for stage 4 neuroblastoma at Memorial Sloan Kettering and is now five years cancer free.
My name is Sydney Sims. Ten years ago, when I was just seven years old and only in the second grade, I was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma and given six weeks to live. Refusing to accept this prognosis, we packed our bags and flew to New York City in search of cutting-edge treatments and options at Memorial Sloan Kettering. New York soon became my second home, and subsequently, the neuroblastoma staff became my second family. At MSK I was what one might call a human guinea pig, being the first patient to receive many treatments such as high-dose antibodies and the [neuroblastoma] vaccine.
Through all the bad times, I always tried to keep my spirits high and keep my life filled with the best medicine…laughter. My dad and I had a tradition that every time I went under anesthesia we would make a bet to see if I could stay awake long enough to count to ten, and if I could stay awake that long I made a couple bucks. I won most of the time but it normally ended up sounding like “niinnnnee one thouuuusand, teeeeennnnn one thouuuusaaaannnndddd.” My journey definitely wasn’t an easy one. I relapsed three times and went through five and a half years of treatment. I am extremely happy to report that this July, I will be five years cancer free and beginning the next chapter of my life at the University of Tampa, studying marine biology in the honors program.
Over the years I’ve met some amazing people at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Some were fellow patients, some were staff, and others were volunteers. Those people were some of the nicest, most encouraging and supportive people I’ve ever known. Some of my best friends and fellow warriors are not here with us today, but I know they have been by my side each and every step of the way. I know I would not be standing here before you today without the help of some really amazing people. Those people include my wonderful doctors Dr. Cheung, Dr. Kushner, Dr. Kramer, Dr. Modak, and Dr. LaQuaglia, my remarkable nurse practitioners Linda, Ursula, Yi-Chih, Esther, Latisha, and Cat, and anybody else who has ever helped me along the way! You are all such an inspiration. The remarkable things you do every day have moved my brother to major in premed education at Florida State University.
Ten years ago, thinking that this day might never come makes the journey so much sweeter and gives my family and I so much more to celebrate. If I’ve learned anything over the past 12 years, it would be pi equals 3.1415926535897323 approximately.… I learned I’ll never reach five feet [tall].… And just like me, life is short. We must live every day like it is our last, celebrate the little things, do what makes us happy, and follow our dreams. Class of 2014, there is a big world, so go out and explore it!