Last Thursday afternoon, a boisterous procession of high school seniors entered the Rockefeller Research Laboratories auditorium at Memorial Sloan Kettering to mark a momentous occasion in their lives before family, friends, doctors, nurses, and other loved ones: their graduation. In the nine years since the Department of Pediatrics began these annual celebrations, more than 600 current and former patients have earned their high school or equivalency diplomas.
This year’s ceremony was especially poignant, as several members of the class of 2015 participated in the festivities. Michael Joseph Cooke, a graduate of Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Ramsey, New Jersey, performed the processional song, “The Rowan Tree,” on bagpipes; Thomas Donaldson, a graduate of Lynbrook High School in Lynbrook, New York, welcomed guests and graduates with “The Star Spangled Banner”; and Kalah Anyssa Dolman, a graduate of the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx, sang “Breakaway.”
Tate Keller, a graduate of Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, New York, shared his story in his graduate address. (His remarks are included in full below.)
Pediatric oncologist Paul Meyers, Department of Pediatrics Chair Richard O’Reilly, Physician-in-Chief José Baselga, and President and CEO Craig Thompson extended their heartfelt congratulations to the remarkable young people seated before them, and also acknowledged all the members of the MSK staff who work so hard to restore them to health. They also offered advice for the students’ future challenges, though these resilient survivors have already faced — and overcome — one of life’s most difficult trials.
This speech is by Tate Keller.
When I was asked to speak, I thought about what I would say. So many thoughts come through my head when I think about the journey I’ve been on. And then I thought of my fellow graduates and where many of us will be moving on to next year. Because of this I thought of my college essay and the question I answered was to describe a place or environment where I was perfectly content and to explain what I do or experience there, and why it is meaningful to me.
So, here it is.
It is a commute I know all too well: the LIRR to the 6 train, get off at 68th street, walk four blocks east, take a deep breath, and walk through the front door. When the elevator arrives on the 9th floor, I find myself looking at a modern structure of glass set inside a large brick building. Immediately, I feel a rush of comfort and protection. I am at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, or as my family and I fondly call it, Memorial, a place where kids from around the world come to battle myriad cancers and other diseases. I am one of these kids, and this is my story.
At first glance, I notice the playful pediatrics room filled with games, activities, and pale-faced kids tethered to IV poles. There are creative collages and cheerful drawings by the kids, but the uneasy faces of their worried parents surround them. The floor is vibrantly decorated, and lights on the walls change color — almost like a celebration for everyone who is there. Positive energy radiates everywhere; doctors and nurses walk around with confidence and passion, in a profession where they cannot become discouraged or distraught.
How do I fit into this setting? When I was a few days old, I was rushed to the hospital while suffering from an unusually high fever. Something was wrong with my immune system’s reaction to an infection. Pediatric oncologists soon diagnosed me with a rare blood disorder known as severe congenital neutropenia, or Kostmann syndrome. I was born without the ability to produce white blood cells that respond to infections. After being sent to Memorial, where I received two years of treatment, Dr. Boulad and his team discovered that I did not react to drugs that should have regulated production of my neutrophils. My parents were living in a nightmare filled with fear; there were no options for treatment other than a bone marrow transplant, which is not always successful. Finding a donor for the transplant is half the battle and a perfect match was a statistical long shot. But a little bit of luck was on my side. Emily, my sister who was six years old at the time, by some miracle, was my perfect match. She is the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me.
For seven weeks, I lived on the pediatrics floor, a two-year-old in isolation, until my transplant took hold. I do not remember much from this time, but from stories my parents have told me, the doctors and nurses knew I was getting better when I would get out of bed, relentlessly climb on chairs, and repeatedly press the buttons on the VCR until I drove everyone crazy and the machine broke. Bad news for the VCR, but apparently very good news for me.
I have been visiting Memorial for annual checkups and have been healthy since the success of my transplant back in 1999. I have grown very close with everybody here at Memorial who treated me; after all, we have known each other since I was an infant. They always encourage me to follow my passion for science research and support and guide me like a family member. In fact, this past summer, through Dr. Boulad’s support and encouragement, I secured a position studying DNA repair across the street at Rockefeller University. I plan to continue this research as I enter my freshman year at Case Western Reserve University this fall and hope that one day my efforts will contribute to a place like Memorial.
Today, I look at all of the activity and feel the emotion on the pediatrics floor and think about the people at Memorial who are going through things I have dealt with in the past. Most kids do not grow up in an environment where they are constantly isolated from others, feel sick, need to get blood drawn, have surgery, or receive chemo. Oftentimes it’s hard to stay positive, but at Memorial, kids make friends, play games, have fun, respect one another, and grow up as naturally as possible. It is unusual to be able to feel protected and content in a place where kids are sick; nevertheless, Memorial has not only kept me healthy, it has helped me realize that my passion in life is to continue researching blood disorders and to make sure that kids keep smiling.
So again, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who has been there for me. Not only have you saved my life, you have also taught me about life. You have always been generous, kind, gentle, caring, loving, passionate, dedicated, and all things good. And to my fellow graduates, we have all achieved much and have all been supported by many, and for all of us, this is something to be proud of. Now is the time to celebrate. Congratulations and good luck in the future.