A Hope-Filled Reunion


Story By: Charles A. Coulombe 


City of Hope is a cancer research and treatment center in Duarte, California that well deserves its name. Dedicated to fighting cancer, its victories over the dreaded disease are many. But of all the terrible forms cancer can take, bone marrow disorders are among the worst. Nevertheless, City of Hope has pioneered many new techniques in bone marrow transplants over the years. Bone marrow donations come from healthy donors, often from another state, country, or even continent. Four decades ago, City of Hope came up with the remarkable idea of introducing – subject to mutual consent – donors to the people whose lives they had saved. The result is an annual reunion, the 40th of which occurred last May 6 at City of Hope’s Argyros Family Garden.

Hundreds of donors and recipients came together that day, reflecting on the relationships that will endure for their rest of their lives. The gathering – which drew 4,000 donors, recipients, family members and City of Hope staff members and volunteers – felt like a huge family reunion, complete with tents, buffets, and long picnic tables. There was music, memories, and children playing. But the highlight of the day was the introduction of two City of Hope patients and their donors.

The first reunion was that of Dominick Folbrecht, 15, who was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2010 when he was nine-years-old. Dominick’s treatment at that time was successful, and the cancer went into remission. It returned in late 2014, and Dominick was admitted to City of Hope. But he had no family. Fortunately, the clinical psychologist the cancer center assigned him to had been looking for a child to adopt (Jeanelle Folbrecht, Ph.D., already had two teenagers) and Dominick found a home. Luckily, he found a donor: then 19-–year-old Vanessa Brobbey of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

Not knowing what she wanted to with her life, Vanessa had registered as a donor her senior year of high school. When the call came, she found that the procedure was easier than she thought it would be. She wanted to know immediately afterwards who the recipient was, but due to the donor center’s policy, she had to wait one year before her recipient’s identity was revealed. When that time ended, she learned about Dominick – how he was in the process of being adopted, and how her gift had allowed him to return to a normal life – especially the sports he loves. The experience has motivated her to become a pediatric nurse.  The meeting of the two on that morning was an emotional one – Dominick owed Vanessa his life, and Vanessa, 20, owed Dominick a sense of purpose for hers.

The second recipient was award-winning television producer and writer Steven Bochco. Among the shows he has developed are Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Doogie Howser, M.D. and NYPD Blue. But his success did not prepare him for the shock of his cancer diagnosis. His confidence was greatly restored by the woman who drew his blood for his first test – she herself, some 13 years previously, had had a similar diagnosis, and she was successfully treated by the same doctor who would treat Bochco, Dr. Stephen Forman. She shared that if she could afford to work there for free, she would, as the rewards are many – a number of City of Hope employees are people whose first encounter with the cancer center was a successful treatment there, and they all feel a special connection to the patients they now guide through a familiar process. A donor match was found for Bochco as well – Jon Kayne, 25, a San Francisco resident.

Kayne in turn had been inspired to become a donor through the example of his beloved grandfather, who had died when Jon was only 13, after five years of battling brain cancer. It was not only his grandfather’s example and advice to help that inspired Jon; it was also the hope that others would be able to enjoy their own seniors longer, as he wished he could have done. Bochco and Kayne’s meeting was emotional as well.

Puerto Rican born Draco Rosa, Grammy Award winning singer and songwriter, is also one of City of Hope’s success stories. Having recovered thanks to an organ donor, he stressed the importance of giving others a chance at life - he too felt blessed by God to be alive and spoke about his gratitude to City of Hope and his doctor, Auayporn Nademanee.

Forty years and 13,000 implants into the program, City of Hope is definitely living up to its name.