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Pasadena Star-News

Help on the straight and marrow

Transplant recipients, donors meet at annual City of Hope reunion

By Kimm Groshong , Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005 - DUARTE -- Teary-eyed but smiling, Theresa Tassinari of Plymouth, Mass., stood holding hands with the newest member of her family Friday morning at City of Hope's annual bone marrow transplant survivor reunion.

Shortly after meeting 9-year-old Alexis Pellicane, whose photograph had graced her refrigerator door for a year, Tassinari said, "My family has just grown.'

Just over a year ago, Tassinari donated the bone marrow that saved Pellicane's life. The marrow produced stem cells that helped Pellicane's immune system recover following her chemotherapy and radiation treatments for leukemia.

Each year, thousands of bone marrow transplantation recipients and donors, each with their own stories of survival and giving, celebrate life at City of Hope's annual reunion event. Friday's was the 29th.

Stephen Forman, the director of the division of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at City of Hope, said part of the reason the medical center puts on the event each year is "to demonstrate to the world that for these diseases there are no borders, there are no barriers to what we need to do to help cure somebody.'

Bone marrow transplantation requires a match between donor and recipient with regard to particular biological markers measured by HLA typing. Each person has two sets of the markers one from each parent, so siblings have a one-in-four chance of being a good match.

For those like Pellicane, whose family members don't turn out to be matches, a National Marrow Donor Program with more than
5 million volunteers provides another possibility. Today, a match can be found within the program about 70 percent of the time, said David Snyder, one of the City of Hope's bone marrow transplantation experts.

For one of Snyder's patients, Steve Rom, the search for a match led to a small town near Freiburg, Germany, and Annette Lechler. She originally had her bone marrow typed more than a decade ago in hopes of helping a distant relative. Although she couldn't help then, Lechler turned out to be Rom's match.

It's been nearly three years since Rom's transplantation procedure and he is now writing a book with his best friend, former NFL Super Bowl player Rod Payne, about using game tactics and teamwork to fight disease. He says Snyder was his "coach' and Lechler his "most valuable player' in defeating leukemia.

When Rom and Lechler met for the first time at City of Hope on Wednesday, Rom said "from the second Dr. Snyder told me 'we found you a donor,' I didn't need to know where she was, who she was, what she did or nothing. All I knew was that I finally had that connection, that soul-mate somewhere ... She gave me more than life, she gave me a sister.'

City of Hope is the state's largest provider of marrow and blood stem cell transplants. More than 500 transplants are performed there every year.

Each of the transplant recipients at the event Friday wore a badge indicating how many years had passed since their procedure.

Pasadena-native George Throop's had a big 3 on it. Throop, 81, is the oldest patient in the program's history to undergo the procedure. He said he never doubted that City of Hope was going to cure his lymphoma.

"You can't believe the treatment you get here,' he said. And his wife, Nancy, added "it's the love that everyone here has.'

-- Kimm Groshong can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at kimm.groshong@sgvn.com .