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Survivors Celebrate a Decade of Miracles

July 27, 1986|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

At first Rodrigo Nunez thought he would always be a migrant farm worker--that's what he was and all he could hope to be, when he was stricken with a deadly blood disease at the age of 18 in 1978.

Then he thought he'd die far from his family in Mexico, among people who did not understand his language or his terror.

Last Wednesday Nunez spoke of miracles, in perfect English, to others whose lives were saved by bone marrow transplants, and they understood him perfectly.

He told them he is a student at Pasadena City College and soon will have a degree in nursing, "because now I want to make something of my life."

Celebration by Survivors

Nunez was among more than 60 survivors of malignant blood diseases who celebrated 10 years of bone marrow transplantation at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte.

They came from all over the country to observe what many called the anniversaries of their "rebirth," or "second chance" after facing almost certain death.

The chief benefactor for most of patients was Dr. Karl Blume, who has headed the center's department of hematology and bone marrow transplantation since its inception in 1975.

"These are dreams that came true," he said amid cheers and applause.

Even Tuhk Potter, who was 4 last year when he underwent a lengthy and painful cure for leukemia, knew he was one of the special ones at the lunch for survivors, donors and their families.

His five brothers and sisters who cheered him back to health every day during his hospitalization "saw a lot of children pass away, and we know how lucky we are," said their mother, Jeanine Potter.

Before 1976 many of the celebrants would have died of such malignant blood diseases as leukemia, aplastic anemia and Hodgkins disease. City of Hope was then one of six hospitals in the country to implant bone marrow into a patient's blood stream, where it migrates to bones and manufactures new blood to replace the diseased cells.

Donors of bone marrow are almost always a brother or sister whose blood must match identically that of the victim, making survival a life-and-death family affair.

After two weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the patient receives marrow that has been removed by needle from the hip bones of his donor.

Kept in Isolation

The patient is kept in isolation for at least two weeks and in the hospital for several more weeks. He is under close hospital supervision for three months and considered cured only after a year of good health.

After a decade of pioneering in research and increasing success in treating patients, City of Hope is still a leader among the 50 hospitals nationwide who perform marrow transplants. City of Hope performs about 70 such transplants a year. Its 134 survivors live all over the world.

The first was Mushtaque Jivani, a 37-year-old program analyst who lives in Culver City, whose successful transplant took place on Dec. 2, 1976. Jivani is a native of Pakistan who said life is richer and he is happier since his confrontation with death in 1976.

"This place is like home to me,"

Jivani said. "It's nice to be here. I come back as much as I can."

The second survivor was Marilyn Gaffney, 38, of Whittier, whose transplant took place two months after Jivani's, in 1977.

Their stories and those of others were invariably dramatic.

Jivani, who in 1976 was told he had less than a week to live, twice has hiked the Grand Canyon since his transplant.

Raising Special Children

Gaffney, left sterile by the radiation treatments as all transplant recipients are, is raising four adopted and foster children who have special needs.

She and her husband, Tim, have a Vietnamese boy who was crippled with polio, a multi-handicapped boy, a 4-year-old foster daughter they hope to adopt and an infant whose was born addicted to PCP because of the mother's addiction.

Then there was the family of Tuhk Potter, whose sudden attack of acute myleoblastic leukemia uprooted them from their home in Portland and planted them permanently in Duarte.

Tuhk was given only a few days to live early in 1985. Then City of Hope accepted him as a patient--despite the family's lack of insurance that would cover a bone marrow transplant--and they all moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the hospital grounds so they could support Tuhk.

Family Support

During his weeks in isolation, both before and after the transplant, Tuhk was visited by his parents, Dan and Jeanine, and brothers and sisters Triskin, 10; Tarrish, 8; Trek, 7; Tylee, 4; and Talon, 18 months.

The children competed and prayed in the hope of being Tuhk's donor and Tarrish won.

"I cried. I wanted to be it," Triskin said.

Tuhk slowed his perpetual motion only enough to say he did not like his medicine and feels fine.

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