DUARTE, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--It is understandably difficult for Ashley Montañez to talk about the moment a doctor told her Joseph, her only son, a kindergartner and 6 years old at the time, had cancer. She wipes tears away as she remembers the first time she heard her son had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
“My world stopped,” Montañez, 27, of Bakersfield, California, said. “I couldn't process it. Thank God my husband was there with me because I couldn't think. My one son, my one baby has cancer, and there's nothing I can do to help him other than to be there for him. It was the worst feeling in the world.”
Joseph underwent two rounds of chemotherapy but the cancer did not go into remission. He needed a bone marrow transplant.
On Friday, Oct. 16, the public will watch Joseph meet his donor for the first time virtually during City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion. City of Hope has held a celebration for bone marrow transplant recipients and their donors for 43 years but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s 44th reunion is virtual.
The virtual event will also bring together thousands of bone marrow transplant patients and their families to celebrate a second chance of life in a unique and inspiring way. What began with a birthday cake and a single candle representing a patient’s first year free from cancer has grown into an annual extravaganza that draws survivors, donors and families from around the world, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff who help them through the lifesaving therapy.
Each year, patient-donor meetings are the event’s emotional highlight. Many recipients, though overwhelmed with curiosity and the need to express their gratitude, can only dream of meeting the strangers who saved their lives. City of Hope is making that dream come true for Joseph and his donor this year.
Other event highlights include videos of grateful patients wearing the signature BMT buttons that display the number of years since their transplants, comedy by City of Hope BMT patient Sean Kent, a dance/song performed by BMT nurses and a special guest appearance by a Los Angeles Dodger.
“Despite this year’s BMT reunion being a virtual event, the enormous outpouring of gratitude and positive spirit will be the same,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., director of City of Hope’s Hematologic Malignancies Research Institute and former chair of its Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. “Bone marrow patients often tell us that there are no words to describe how thankful they are for their donors, who have given them a second chance at life.
“Whether it’s a family member who donated, or a person the patient has never met, City of Hope is always deeply grateful for their selfless act,” he added.
A deep appreciation for a person she had never met is what Montañez felt in spring 2019. Her son’s City of Hope doctor, Nicole A. Karras, M.D., a pediatric oncologist, told her that Joseph had a donor willing to donate bone marrow to Joseph.
That was welcome news as the months leading up to Joseph’s transplant devastated his parents. Doctors at first told Montañez Joseph’s stomachache was an intestinal intussusception, similar to a bowel obstruction. His pain would diminish and return. After further tests, the family received Joseph’s cancer diagnosis.
After receiving chemotherapy, Joseph lost his hair and weighed as little as 44 pounds at one point. By May, he was still hospitalized and in need of a transplant. Despite that, Joseph maintained an energetic spirit.
“Even when he was sick and he was constantly having to get IV medications to bring his fever down, he didn't cry,” Montañez said. “He always had this light to him,” she said, adding that Joseph often comforted her when she was sad.
Joseph arrived at City of Hope in June 2019 to prepare for his transplant. Shortly before his transplant, the family would suffer another hardship. Joseph’s grandmother passed away.
“I had to leave Joseph for a few days in the hospital to go to my mother’s funeral,” Montañez said.
Montañez, and her husband, Philip Montañez, knew Joseph would need a donor and they started telling family members they would need to get their cheeks swabbed or donate a small blood sample to find out if they could donate to Joseph.
But thanks to Joseph’s donor, that wouldn’t be necessary.
On Friday, Oct. 16, the public will be able to watch Joseph meet his donor virtually for the first time. The public can watch a video of Joseph and his donor’s emotional reunion on City of Hope’s Facebook Friday at 1 p.m.
About City of Hope’s BMT program
City of Hope recently celebrated more than 16,000 transplants, making it one of the largest and most successful programs in the nation. The institution has the most prodigious BMT program in California, performing over 700 transplants annually.
Over the years, City of Hope has also helped pioneer several bone marrow transplant innovations. In addition to being one of the first institutions to perform bone marrow transplants in older adults, it was one of the first programs to show that BMTs could be safely performed for patients with HIV. City of Hope has had growing success with nonrelated matched donors and, most recently, half matched family donors.
City of Hope was also one of the first programs to develop a treatment for prevention of cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common and potentially deadly infection after transplant, which has nearly eliminated the threat of CMV for BMT patients. The institution successfully conducted clinical trials of a CMV vaccine developed at City of Hope. As a pioneer in the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to treat cancer, City of Hope is also testing how this form of cancer immunotherapy can help patients have a more successful transplant and treat patients with solid tumors and other cancers.
City of Hope’s BMT program is the only one in the nation that has had one-year survival above the expected rate for 15 consecutive years, based on analysis by the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.
In addition, Be The Match at City of Hope last year added more than 13,000 new volunteers willing to save a life when they match a patient who needs a bone marrow transplant. In total, nearly 300,000 potential donors have signed up via City of Hope, motivated by a patient at the cancer center. Be The Match encourages healthy individuals between the ages of 18-44 to take the first step of registering by texting COHBMT to 61474. To learn more about the donation process, visit Be The Match at City of Hope’s website.
About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent biomedical research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Founded in 1913, City of Hope is a leader in bone marrow transplantation and immunotherapy such as CAR T cell therapy. City of Hope’s translational research and personalized treatment protocols advance care throughout the world. Human synthetic insulin and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs are based on technology developed at the institution. A National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, City of Hope has been ranked among the nation’s “Best Hospitals” in cancer by U.S. News & World Report for 14 consecutive years. Its main campus is located near Los Angeles, with additional locations throughout Southern California. For more information about City of Hope, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.