Stem cell recipients’ first reunion to share successes, offer hope to transplant patients

October 23, 2008

Patients who underwent stem cell transplants at the University of Chicago Medical Center will hold their first reunion on Sunday, October 26, to demonstrate hope for cancer patients who are facing this difficult, long treatment. The “Celebration of Life” will be held at the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, 4th floor atrium, 5758 S. Maryland Ave., from 1 to 4 p.m.

Stem cell recipients like Mica Witt, 55, of Mahomet, Ill., will be attending with their families. Her daughter, Ashley, will read a poem, “Warrior,” she wrote in honor of her mom’s battle with acute myelogenous leukemia after her diagnosis in June 2002.

Among the speakers for the event will be Koen van Besien, MD, director of the stem cell transplant and lymphoma programs at the Medical Center, and Marie Tobin, MD, associate professor of psychiatry. Patients and members of the transplant nursing staff will also offer remarks.

After chemotherapy alone was not successful, Witt underwent an autologous stem cell transplant in February 2003 when she received high-dose chemotherapy followed by her own stem cells. In December 2003, her brother--a perfect match--gave Witt a second transplant with his stem cells. Two months later, she left the hospital, and soon afterward she returned to work. She went on to finish college.

Coping with the transplants was rough. Witt lost and regrew her hair three times. In addition to devastating weakness, she also dealt with the psychological stress of undergoing two transplants and wondering if she would make it through.

“It was a hard road, but you have to keep positive,” Witt said. “I and several other patients urged the University of Chicago Medical Center to create this reunion because stem cell patients need to give hope to others who are in the middle of treatments or about to start. This whole network of people will let transplant patients see that others have gone through this and are there for support.”

Stem cell patients typically spend months together in the hospital marrow transplant unit during recovery. But the procedure often leaves them too debilitated to truly enjoy each other’s company.

“It’s important for our patients to see each other again under better circumstances, and I know that many of them will be really be overjoyed. In the difficult world of stem cell transplants, the reunion will be an affirmation that we are making progress,” van Besien said

The event is also meaningful for physicians and oncology nurses whose jobs can be difficult emotionally. They will reunite with patients they took care of years ago.

Transplantation is the treatment of choice for many patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Some patients with sickle cell anemia can also receive transplants. The University of Chicago Medical Center’s program is often among the first in the country to test experimental approaches done through clinical trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and other organizations.

The Medical Center has taken on a leadership role in advancing the successful use of stem cell transplants and has performed almost 1,200 stem cell transplants in patients of all ages.
Members of the media wishing to attend the stem cell transplant reunion should contact Martha O’Connell. UCMC Media Relations, (773) 834-8089.

About the University of Chicago Medical Center
The University of Chicago Medical Center, established in 1927, is one of the nation’s leading academic medical institutions. It consists of the renowned Pritzker School of Medicine; Bernard Mitchell Hospital, the primary adult patient care facility; Comer Children’s Hospital, devoted to the medical needs of children; Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a maternity and women’s hospital; and the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, a state-of-the-art ambulatory-care facility with the full spectrum of preventive, diagnostic, and treatment functions. Care is provided by more than 700 attending physicians--most of whom are full-time University faculty members--620 residents and fellows, more than 1,000 nurses and 9,500 employees.

The Medical Center is consistently recognized as a leading provider of complex medical care. It is the only Illinois hospital ever to make the U.S.News & World Report Honor Roll, with eight clinical specialties--digestive disorders; cancer; endocrinology; neurology and neurosurgery; heart and heart surgery; kidney disease; geriatrics; and ear, nose and throat--ranked among the top 30 programs nationwide. The Medical Center was awarded Magnet status in 2007, the highest level of recognition for nursing care.

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