The Kindness of Strangers

 

 


Diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, alumna Ruthie Spector faced long odds but was saved by an experimental drug treatment that made a bone marrow transplant possible. The donor drive organized in her behalf will save many more lives in the years to come. By Kristine Conner

A 20th Reunion year is perhaps unique in the way that it balances the impulse to reflect on the past with a sense of anticipation for what’s to come. Careers have been established, families often have been started, decisions have been made about how we want to live our lives.

Two years ago, as she approached her own 20th Reunion, Ruthie Spector W’82 had much to celebrate and anticipate. She had a successful career as an anesthesiologist at Long Island Jewish Hospital, a happy marriage with fellow Penn alumnus and physician Les Salwen C’74 M’80, and three young children, then ages one, three, and seven.

But instead of gathering with her class on Penn’s campus, in spring 2002 Ruthie was preparing to be admitted to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she would undergo an experimental treatment that could save her life—or end it. Just eight months before, with her community still reeling from the events of September 11, 2001, Ruthie experienced her own tragedy: diagnosis with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia.

Despite their medical training, Ruthie and Les found themselves in much the same position as any other people facing the news of a cancer diagnosis: they needed to mount a rather steep learning curve even as they coped with a level of anxiety and uncertainty they had never experienced.

“As doctors, we were able to look things up easily, and we were not intimidated to call up other physicians and medical centers,” Ruthie recalls. “But our professions were a disadvantage, too, because I think we understood the prognosis more clearly than other people might have. Within the first month I was told I would need a bone-marrow transplant to be cured.”

Tissue type is inherited, like eye or hair color, so one of Ruthie’s three siblings seemed likely to be the best candidate for giving her the healthy marrow that she would need to survive. But none of them proved suitable, forcing Ruthie and Les to confront a medical fact that was entirely new to both of them: Given Ruthie’s ancestry, a fellow Ashkenazi Jew would be her next best hope for a match, but such a person, they learned, would be very difficult to find. Like African Americans, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and other ethnic minorities, Jews are underrepresented in bone-marrow registries.

And so began a search that would teach Ruthie and Les a great deal about being on the other side of the physician’s desk. They learned hard lessons about the frustration of receiving incomplete information, the terrible disappointment of not having things go well, and the challenge of balancing a realistic outlook with a sense of hope. They also would have to rely on the kindness of strangers during a desperate search for options in the face of a very difficult diagnosis.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

FEATURE:
The Kindness of Strangers
By Kristine Conner
Photography by Anastasia Vasilakis

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