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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Miracles at Moffitt mean more birthdays

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We read stories all the time about medical research and clinical trials, but maybe we don't fully understand the value of that until something bad happens to someone we know. That's when we fully appreciate the daily miracles performed at a place like Moffitt Cancer Center.

So I would first like to introduce you to my friend, Gil Sterling. He is a lighting and sound technician for Pinellas County schools and Temple Terrace United Methodist Church. That's where I got to know him. He specializes in being indispensable.

You can imagine how we all felt last November when he said matter-of-factly, "I think it's back."

The "it" was cancer, a form of lymphoma he had stared down seven years ago.

Spoiler alert: It appears he has stared it down again.

He is back on the job months earlier than any of us expected, cancer-free following treatment at Moffitt. His immune system, destroyed by the chemotherapy, is rebuilding. He has his life.

v vGil is a Christian, and it wouldn't be telling the full story without mentioning the hundreds of prayers Temple Terrace United Methodist Church members offered on his behalf - at least some of which were mine.

His journey has been a convergence of medicine and faith, and he made a good point: Who says it has to be either/or?

"God put people in place to be the miracle for me," he said. "Sure, God could have come down and gone, 'Boom! You're cancer-free.' But maybe he did. All I know is, I was in the right place with the right doctors."

Doctors killed his cancer with multiple chemo treatments, then used a transplant of his own stem cells to rebuild his immune system.

He was hooked to a machine that harvested the cells while recycling his blood. The process took about six hours. They were later treated, frozen and transplanted back into him.

"It kind of blew my mind that I was able to be my own (marrow) donor," Gil said. "That didn't make sense to me; I mean, I have cancer. But if I had gone the donor route, chances are I would either still be waiting or still be in the hospital."

v vThe only major complication was a post-operative infection that left him hospitalized for five days.

Otherwise, it went so well that doctors allowed him to finish treatment as an outpatient. Gil said they told him that was a first.

Like Gil, I thought a transplant like this meant a long wait for a donor followed by risky surgery.

"The reason we can do things like this is because of basic scientific research and patients' participation in clinical trials," said Marcie Tomblyn, a doctor at Moffitt. "That has helped move this forward dramatically.

"Years ago, this definitely would not have been done as an outpatient. The treatment would have required a trip to the operating room. The risk of dying (from treatment complications) would have been 8 or 9 percent versus 1 or 2 percent now. That's a lot of birthdays."

And a lot of miracles.

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