Medical Campus Hosts Annual Reunion of Stem Cell Transplant Survivors

On April 10, 2010, dozens of stem cell transplant recipients and their families gathered at the University of Chicago Medicine to share their stories of survival. Hear the stories from patients who have recovered from leukemia and other blood cancers thanks to stem cell transplants; the donors who provided stem cells to loved ones; and the medical staff that cared for them before, during, and after the procedure.

Before beginning his story, Orland Park resident Russ Sonneveld, 60, warned the crowd that he might start crying. He talked about being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2002 and being told by other physicians that nothing could be done -- until he came to the University of Chicago Medicine.

"How do you say thank you to the man who saved your life?" -- Russ Sonneveld

His account was a moving but familiar story for the more than 300 people in the room. Most of them also had survived leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma or other disorders of the blood and bone marrow thanks to stem cell transplant procedures by physicians at the medical center.

The medical campus’s second annual celebration for stem cell transplant survivors drew patients from throughout the Midwest to share these stories of triumph over a group of cancers that kill more than 53,000 people each year in the U.S.

Stem cell transplants save patients by first treating the patient’s malignant white blood cells with either chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This serves to rid the patient's body of the disease and to prepare the body to accept the incoming cells. Then, stem cells from healthy bone marrow are infused into the patient, restoring their ability to produce healthy white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets. The marrow can come from the patient’s own body or from a matching donor, usually a younger relative, but sometimes from someone completely unrelated to the patient. The medical center performs up to 130 stem cell transplants of both kinds each year.

Todd Zimmerman, MD, and Russ Sonneveld Todd Zimmerman, MD, assistant professor of medicine, (left) successfully treated Russ Sonneveld's multiple myeloma with a stem cell transplant.

The celebration, held April 10 in the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine’s fourth floor atrium, not only recognized the patients, but also the hospital’s teams and family members who helped them become survivors.

“It’s a moving and highly gratifying experience to see patients not just survive, but thrive,” said Andrew Artz, MD, assistant professor of medicine, who treated several of the patients present. During the ceremony, Artz presented the medical center’s latest research on stem cell transplants and advanced techniques for making the procedure more available. “They discuss their stories in front of everyone and really invest themselves in other patients,” he said. “They will even reach out to other patients in the early stages.”

Mica Witt of Champaign, Ill., also shared her story with the crowd. Witt, one of the event’s organizers, received a stem cell transplant for acute myeloid leukemia. After the presentations, one attendee tapped Witt on the shoulder gave her a long hug. “You don’t know me, but I had a transplant in 2005,” the woman said. “Thank you for organizing this event.”

Witt approached her physician Lucy Godley, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, with the idea to do something for stem cell transplant patients in 2006. At that time, the medical campus hosted an annual memorial service, but nothing to celebrate survivors.

Godley and Witt organized the first celebration for survivors a year and a half ago, and this year’s second event was just as successful. “After a stem cell transplant, we focus so much on the medications, but there is so much more to life than treatment,” Godley said. “We do this to recognize that they are not just our patients, they are people.”

April 2010