Sergio Giralt, Chief of the Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service, described the annual celebration as “one of the highlights of our lives here at MSK because we know this has been a very difficult journey for you and your loved ones.” He said it’s thrilling to see recipients “looking life in the eyes and saying, ‘Alright, what else can you bring on?’”
Marcel van den Brink, Head of the Division of Hematologic Oncology, said his research found that “for each transplant patient at MSK, it takes 456 staff members to make it possible,” including nurses, session assistants, nutrition staff, and many more. Dr. van den Brink praised the “random acts of human kindness by 27 million unsung heroes who have signed up worldwide to give stem cells if needed.”
Richard O’Reilly, Chief of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Service, said, “Thrivers are living examples of what makes us such an extraordinary species and what makes life so overwhelmingly worthwhile. You have instilled in so many people around you the belief that things can get better, that people can make progress, and that we can ultimately get rid of these godawful diseases called cancer.”
Robin Roberts, anchor of Good Morning America, shares a laugh with Dr. Giralt at the 22nd annual MSK Celebration for Blood and Marrow Transplant Survivors/Thrivers. Dr. Giralt led the team that gave Ms. Roberts a stem cell transplant in the fall of 2012 for MDS.
Andrew Kung, Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, said, “After 30 years as a bone marrow transplant physician, I think of the hundreds of changes in how we do transplants, many of them invented here at MSK — and many of them invented by my colleague Dr. Richard O’Reilly.” Dr. Kung thanked thrivers for the “courage to go through the hardships of a transplant and the determination to get back to normalcy.”
Nidha Mubdi was 18 when she received a bone marrow transplant for acute myeloid leukemia. “Words fail me when I try to describe the kindness of people in the pediatric unit where I received my transplant,” she said. “Doctors, nurses, aides, housekeepers, and escorts all helped make my stay more bearable.” Twenty years after her bone marrow transplant — and two kidney transplants — she now works at MSK and says, “I’m living my life to exhaustion and loving it.”
April Jakubauskas, who received a stem cell transplant in 2013 for multiple myeloma, called her transplant group “Team Hope and Life, and they treated me like I was their only patient,” she said. Ms. Jakubauskas particularly credits nurse practitioner Megan Heavey Scott, saying, “Without her I wouldn’t be speaking today. She gave me her cell number, and I’d text, saying, ‘Megan, I’m scared. Do you think I’m going to make it?’ She’d text back, ‘LOL, you’re going to be fine.’” Last year Ms. Jakubauskas joined a team of multiple myeloma thrivers on an eight-day climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money and awareness for blood cancers.
Father Dennis Billy, a Catholic priest, said, “My outside doctors told me, ‘We’re sorry. There’s nothing more we can do for you. The acute leukemia is not responding to treatment.’” But MSK’s Hugo Castro-Malaspina, a hematologic oncologist, told him about a promising new treatment pioneered at MSK: CAR T cell therapy. Father Billy was just the third patient treated with CAR T. His excellent response to the treatment made him a candidate for a transplant. The donor was his younger brother, a New York City firefighter who barely escaped the collapsing Twin Towers on 9/11. Father Billy said, “If he didn’t survive, I wouldn’t have survived.” Today, Father Billy is thriving again, even running a half-marathon with his seminary students.
Ms. Roberts of Good Morning America urged her fellow transplant recipients to “thrive on!” Five years after her own transplant for MDS, she prefers the term “thriver” because “survivor gives the connotation we’re just hanging on,” she explained. “But we don’t want to just hang on. We want to live to the fullest, with everything life has to offer.” She encourages fellow thrivers to “focus on the fight and not the fright, because all of us are stronger than we think.”
More than 200 people who have received blood and marrow transplants at Memorial Sloan Kettering gathered to take part in MSK’s 22nd annual Celebration for Blood and Marrow Transplant Survivors/Thrivers.
They partied alongside family, friends, donors, caregivers, and staff at MSK’s Zuckerman Research Center. This year’s event shifted focus slightly, celebrating not just surviving transplantation, but thriving by living full, healthy lives.
That change in emphasis came on the advice of many MSK transplant recipients who attended the yearly fete, including Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts. She joined this tight-knit community when she received a stem cell transplant at MSK in the fall of 2012 for the treatment of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
Ms. Roberts and her fellow thrivers greeted old friends, made new ones, and reunited with doctors, nurses, and other staff. Together, they shared memories about the complex, often grueling process that helped bring them back to health.
Sergio Giralt, Chief of MSK’s Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service, said he was overjoyed to see so many patients who have “dropped your boxing gloves and now have returned to put on the tender gloves of life.” He also encouraged thrivers and their loved ones to get involved in supporting blood and marrow transplant efforts because “so many people who need transplants lack the resources and access to get help, particularly in metro New York, which is the most underserved area for transplants in the country.”
Click through the slide show above to learn more about the people at this event, filled with inspiring stories, plenty of laughs, and some well-deserved tears.