DUARTE, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--In the days leading up to a bone marrow transplant, Gary Stromberg lay in a hospital bed at City of Hope, too weak to walk, his energy and appetite gone; chemotherapy he received to wipe out his acute myeloid leukemia, and clear the way for a donor’s healthy stem cells, had also killed good cells, leading to his declining health.
Stromberg’s son, David, 24 at the time, sat on his bed and cried. They held hands. “You’re not going to die,” Stromberg recalled David told him. “I won’t let you.”
On July 18, 2012, Stromberg underwent a transplant – he received stem cells from Alex Kikis, then a 33-year-old Russian native who had immigrated to Israel. Stromberg, who co-founded Gibson & Stromberg, a large and influential music public relations firm in the 1960s and 1970s and represented such luminaries as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, Boyz II Men and other singers and bands, credits Kikis with saving his life.
On Friday, May 11, at City of Hope’s 42nd Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, Stromberg will meet Kikis for the first time and thank him for donating his stem cells to a person he had never met that lived 7,500 miles away. Arturo Martinez, 15, of Beaumont, who survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia, will also meet his donor. Stromberg, Martinez and their donors will be the highlight of a 10 a.m. news conference at City of Hope’s Argyros Family Garden of Hope.
“I have two children who continue to have a father thanks to Alex,” Stromberg said as he held back tears. “I want to let him know that. My children would like to thank him too.”
“Alex saved my life for no apparent reason,” Stromberg, 76, said. “He didn’t get anything out of this. He just did it out of his kindness and generosity.”
That’s a sentiment that Stephen J. Forman, M.D, Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope and leader of its Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute, has heard often since the first BMT reunion in 1976.
“City of Hope’s annual BMT reunion celebrates the incredible lifesaving gift that so many donors give our cancer patients who are in need of a transplant, one that they hope leads to a cure,” Forman said. “Because of these selfless donors, as well as City of Hope research that helped pioneer the BMT transplant process, and our exceptional nursing and physician care, our patients are often able to achieve a cure and spend many more cherished moments with their families.”
Stromberg was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on March 12, 2012. A couple of months before that, he had started to have trouble breathing and felt weak; a doctor told Stromberg, who gave up smoking 35 years ago, that he had emphysema. He was prescribed inhalers to help him breathe, but they didn’t work. Stromberg decided to see another pulmonary doctor, who ran blood tests.
Stromberg recalled the doctor told him: “You don’t have emphysema. You have leukemia, and you need to get to a hospital right now, and I don’t mean tomorrow!”
Stromberg started chemotherapy that night.
“I was assigned an oncologist who told me that I was very sick and that I was only a couple of weeks away from dying had I not been treated right away,” he added.
Stromberg’s cancer went into remission after a month of chemotherapy but he was told the leukemia would return and he would need a bone marrow transplant to survive. A friend in the entertainment industry encouraged him to visit City of Hope, where he met Forman.
As Stromberg waited for the transplant at City of Hope, Kikis spent six hours undergoing a nonsurgical procedure known as apheresis, which is similar to donating blood; the procedure collects peripheral blood stem cells for the transplant. A medical courier then transported the stem cells from Israel to City of Hope and Stromberg was infused within 24 hours.
“It took about a month laying in intensive care for the new bone marrow to take effect,” Stromberg said. “During that time, I was very susceptible to all kinds of bad stuff but I was very fortunate and the problems I had were minor.”
Stromberg said he also felt the power of prayer during that time. A recovering alcoholic, he’s been a member of a 12 Step Recovery Program for over 35 years.
“When I was at the hospital, I was too weak to talk to anyone or have visitors, but I had my iPad and I started receiving messages that I was being prayed for by people all over the world,” Stromberg said. “I have Muslim friends in New Jersey who held a prayer vigil for me in their mosque. A mass was said at Notre Dame for me. I had Jewish friends who put my name in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
“I’m not a religious guy but I’m a spiritual person and I could feel it in my bones that I was being healed by these prayers,” he added. “Dr. Forman keeps telling me that I am a miracle, and I think he’s right.”
City of Hope patient Arturo Martinez will also meet his donor at the BMT reunion
Sandra Martinez recalled with a smile just how much her son, Arturo, loved to run from the time he was a toddler.
“I remember at Disneyland one day, he just took off on us,” Martinez said about Arturo, her only child. “In fifth grade, he got second place running a mile.”
But Arturo’s energy started to wane in sixth grade. He couldn’t run during P.E. because one of his legs hurt.
Martinez and her husband, also Arturo, took their son to a doctor, who told them the younger Arturo might have growing pains. Another doctor told her it could be psychological.
“He was in so much pain that I was going through bottles of Tylenol and Motrin,” Martinez recalled. “He was really tired and had no appetite. I knew something was wrong.”
Arturo started to get fevers and rashes. Martinez grew more concerned. After several months of visiting various doctors, one doctor finally told her in Spanish (so Arturo wouldn’t understand) that the 11-year-old might have acute lymphoblastic leukemia. By this time, Arturo also had chest and abdominal pain.
A few days later, shortly after Thanksgiving in 2014, Arturo started chemotherapy. The next couple of months were particularly devastating for Arturo and his family. Chemotherapy wasn’t working, and Arturo also wasn’t feeling well.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Arturo said. “I had a lot of anxiety.”
In late February 2015, his doctors let the family know that Arturo would need a bone marrow transplant and asked that they start looking among family members for a donor. Several cousins were tested but none were a match.
To Martinez’s surprise, because she had heard it could take a long time, Arturo found a donor within a few weeks. He was admitted to City of Hope a few days before the transplant, just before his 12th birthday, to receive chemotherapy and radiation to wipe out his leukemic cells.
“So for his 12th birthday, he got radiation,” Martinez recalled.
Arturo’s health would continue to be riddled with numerous challenges, including a severe case of graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD.) The GVHD, which occurs when the donor’s cells do not recognize the recipient’s own cells, often in the skin and intestines, and attack them. This affected both his stomach and skin, and he developed severe rashes.
At one point, Arturo was so depressed that he didn’t want to take any medicine. But one City of Hope nurse helped turn things around for him. Esmeralda “Emi” Arias spent time with Arturo, coaxing him into taking medicine by offering him gifts from the “joy jar.”
“They have little things that were donated for him to play with while he’s in bed like cards, Monkeys in a Barrel,” Martinez said. “Emi would take the time to play with him and that would cheer him up.”
Arturo remained at City of Hope for three months under the care of Nicole Karras, M.D., City of Hope assistant clinical professor of pediatrics; Martinez remained at the hospital with Arturo until he was discharged in the summer of 2015.
For the next year, Arturo continued to have health problems related to his GVHD and remained on many medications – as a result he developed pancreatitis, which was extremely painful. Arturo also had a couple of bone fractures and used a wheelchair for several months.
But Arturo set a goal for himself – he wanted to attend his favorite cousin’s graduation from California State University Humboldt in the summer of 2017. He took the medicines he needed, took classes at home (because his immune system was still weak) and participated in physical therapy classes to help him walk again.
Arturo took a week-long trip – the first time since he had been diagnosed with ALL – and attended his cousin’s graduation. He’s excited to thank the donor that has made those and many other experiences with his family possible.
“I just want to thank him for what he did,” Arturo said. “He gave me the opportunity at a second life.”
Bone marrow transplants offer a second chance for people with life-threatening blood cancers and other hematologic malignancies. Since 1976, more than 14,000 patients from virtually every state and dozens of countries have undergone bone marrow, cord blood or stem cell transplants at City of Hope. The institution has the only transplant program in the nation to achieve 13 consecutive reporting years of “overperformance” in one-year overall patient survival, according to the most recent data from the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.
In addition, City of Hope is bridging the way to the next frontier in treating these cancer patients: using immunotherapy to train a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Amid the transplant survivors at the reunion are a handful of patients who represent a new generation of blood cancer survivors: patients treated in CAR T therapy clinical trials. These patients’ own immune cells are extracted, modified to enable them to recognize and attack cancer cells, and then reinfused back into the patients.
About City of Hope’s BMT reunion
What began with a birthday cake and a single candle representing a patient’s first year free from cancer has grown into an annual picnic extravaganza that draws more than 4,000 survivors, donors and families from around the world, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff who help them through the lifesaving therapy. After the morning news conference, City of Hope will host a program of entertainment for survivors, donors and families. Among the highlights, cancer survivor and comedian Sean Kent, who will be celebrating 15 years cancer-free, will perform, and there will be musical performances, including a group of City of Hope nurses who perform as The Marrowettes.
About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Designated as one of only 49 comprehensive cancer centers, 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 world. City of Hope’s main campus is located in Duarte, California, just northeast of Los Angeles, with additional locations throughout 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, diabetes and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs based on technology developed at the institution.