Coming home 30 years after her life-saving bone marrow transplant

Three decades ago, Laura DiLella knew her best shot at being cured of acute myeloid leukemia was at Fred Hutch
Laura DiLella and Dr. Fred Appelbaum
Laura DiLella and Dr. Fred Appelbaum look at pictures taken the day she had her bone marrow transplant. DiLella returned to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Feb. 13, 2014 -- 30 years to the day of her transplant -- to reunite with Appelbaum and others who helped save her life. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

The pages in the scrapbook are slightly yellowed with age. For Laura DiLella, a survivor of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), they are from a lifetime ago.

Each page holds snapshots from the bone marrow transplant she received at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Feb. 13, 1984, 30 years ago today. In one photo the bone marrow, donated by her sister Alicia Hancock, is being presented to her on a silver platter, a joke Hancock had arranged. In another image, DiLella is in her hospital bed smiling as the lifesaving marrow is infused. 

“We have great memories,” said Jim DiLella, Laura’s husband. “Scary times but great memories.”

To celebrate the anniversary, Laura DiLella and her family returned to the Hutch’s Seattle campus from their home in Cleveland to thank some of the physicians who helped save her life: Dr. Fred Appelbaum, now executive vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutch who cared for her during her treatment, and Dr. Robert Hickman, inventor of the Hickman catheter. Her physician, Nobel laureate Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, considered the father of bone marrow transplantation, died in 2012.

“Back then, they were all Young Turks at the edge of technology,” Jim DiLella said. Laura DiLella, a nurse, was diagnosed with AML shortly before the first birthday of her only child, Jimmy. She and her sister, an oncology nurse, had been tracking the symptoms and began to suspect it was leukemia.

“I’ll never forget her phone call,” Hancock remembers. “I was at work and at the end of my shift she called and got out the words ‘We were right,’ and then she fell apart.”

Dr. Robert Hickman and Laura DiLella
Dr. Robert Hickman, inventor or the Hickman catheter, receives a hug from leukemia survivor, Laura DiLella. She toured the Fred Hutch campus Thursday, on the 30th anniversary of her bone marrow transplant, and reunited with some of the people who helped save her life. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Given the treatment options of chemo or a bone marrow transplant, she chose the transplant, believing it gave her the best shot at regaining her health. The catch was that, as her physician told her, if she wanted to have a bone marrow transplant, Fred Hutch was the only place to go. Unfortunately, that would mean leaving her son -- the little boy who was the driving factor in her quest to get better -- behind for months. “I kissed him goodbye not knowing if I would see him again,” she remembered, her eyes filling with tears.

On Thursday, Jimmy DiLella, now a father himself, joined his parents at the Hutch. “I did it all for him,” said Laura DiLella.

Hancock said that while her sister, who went on to become an oncology counselor, lives in the present, there’s not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about what could have happened. “Laura didn’t think she would see her son grow up – and now she has a grandson.”

Since the days when Thomas pioneered bone marrow transplants at Fred Hutch, more than a million have been done around the world. Once a death sentence, some leukemias now have cure rates of up to 90 percent.

Now 61, Laura DiLella marvels at how far she – and the Hutch – have come.

“Being here, I’m just filled with gratitude and disbelief at all the advances and what they’ve accomplished in 30 years,” she said.

Linda Dahlstrom is a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center editor. Previously, she was the health editor for NBC News Digital and She also worked at several newspapers during her 25-year career as a journalist covering AIDS, cancer, end-of-life issues and global health.

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