Lifesaving breakthroughs happen step by step, inch by inch and patient by patient. Not every patient who risks an experimental procedure is cured. But all give of themselves to help those who follow behind.
Sometimes, one person’s experience echoes outward, like ripples from a pebble dropped in a pond, and buoys the next generation.
In the California home of Linda Greenwood rests a brick with an inscription written in black Sharpie:
Deane Wakefield James
His courage and sacrifice saved lives
It's a stand in for a brick bearing the same words and memorializing Greenwood’s father which will be unveiled Tuesday evening during a ceremony in the Mundie Courtyard of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
At the annual event, other bricks and slates — similarly honoring loved ones — will be introduced in the light-filled space outside the Weintraub Building. Prices start at $250 per brick and proceeds benefit Fred Hutch. Each brick has its own story.
James, a leukemia patient, participated in early clinical tests of bone marrow transplantation to cure blood cancers. Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who would later share the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the field, spearheaded testing and refining the procedure in trials conducted at the Seattle Public Health Hospital before moving to Fred Hutch when the first building opened in 1975.
When James received his bone marrow transplant 45 years ago, he was undergoing a very experimental procedure. Though James died from his leukemia, his family — even members of the generation who never met their grandfather — remain proud of his role in making bone marrow transplantation the success story we know today.
James was one of 12 children growing up in Spokane, Washington. “He was self-sufficient. All the kids were. The older kids kind of raised the younger ones, and he kept on that role, even though he wasn’t the oldest,” said Greenwood. Though James moved from Spokane to Seattle to be a mechanic at Boeing, he continued offering support to the 11 siblings who remained in his hometown, she said. Greenwood remembers his red hair, thinning on top, and his quiet generosity.
James was fast friends with Boeing colleague Harold Greenwood, whose son John would later wed Linda. The two families, including James’ wife, Glenna, spent plenty of time together during John and Linda’s childhood in the mid-1950s. John Greenwood recalls his father-in-law’s love of the outdoors, often seeking unpopulated tracts of Weyerhaeuser timberland: “He liked to camp … just follow a road until he hit a river. Lots of camping, lots of fishing.”
In 1963, when James was diagnosed with leukemia at age 40, his cancer barely slowed him down at first. For seven years, a new drug helped keep his white blood cell counts from climbing — the telltale sign that cancer is revving its engines.
But eventually, James’ tumor cells outgunned the available drugs and he was hospitalized. He had one more chance, and it lay in barely charted territory. When James’ doctors told him of the experimental procedure testing bone marrow transplantation against leukemia, it was no surprise that he took the risk — not only for himself. “I remember him saying he didn’t mind being a guinea pig if it helped others,” said John Greenwood.
As it turns out, having 11 siblings made James a great candidate for bone marrow transplant, upping the odds that he’d have a family member whose tissue type matched his. Everyone was tested, and his sister Joan donated bone marrow to her brother. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation to try to kill off as many cancer cells as possible before receiving his sister’s healthy, cancer-free marrow. The family, who had gathered in Seattle in support of James, hoped and waited.
The pre-transplant treatments obliterated James’ immune system, and he was placed in a special, positive-pressure room to minimize the risk of infection. Linda remembers the long rubber gloves family members and nurses wore to touch James. At that point, “I don’t think they’d had much experience isolating people,” John said.
Linda reminisced fondly about one good outcome of the treatments: her father shaved his head, ridding himself of a not particularly flattering comb-over. “It was the best thing that ever happened to his hair!” she recalled affectionately.
But James’ transplant did not beat back his cancer. He was in pain and growing weaker. The experimental protocol was not yet optimally calibrated.
“They didn’t irradiate his liver enough to kill off all the cancer cells, and he succumbed,” said John, who still tears up at the memory of his hospitalized father-in-law. James died on May 2, 1970, just one day after his and Glenna’s 26th wedding anniversary. He was 47.
“He made a sacrifice that helped make bone marrow transplantation so good today,” Linda said.
Though they never met James, his grandchildren, Scott Greenwood and Katie Peck, are proud of him. “My whole life I’ve been told the story: how he was one of the first bone marrow transplant patients, and how important it was in terms of advancing science and helping other people,” Peck said.
“His odds of survival were not good, it was more to advance the medicine than to live,” Scott said of his grandfather’s decision to participate in a clinical trial. “I know he would have made a great grandfather. He liked making up stories to tell kids. He was really good with kids.”
When Linda Greenwood’s daughter-in-law, Melissa Conerly, joined the Hutch, Linda told her about the family connection. Conerly, now a postdoctoral fellow in Stephen Tapscott’s lab studying how modifications to DNA packaging influence cell development, remembered the link when she began contemplating possible Christmas presents for her mother-in-law last year. “Family and legacy are very important to the Greenwoods,” she said — and a brick honoring James seemed ideal.
”I thought the brick was a really neat idea when she told me,” said Scott — and his family concurred. (“Absolutely! Amazing!” was Katie’s response.) New bricks wouldn’t be laid in the courtyard until seven months later, so Melissa acquired a stand-in — scribbling her message in permanent marker — and she concocted a story that would bring the family to Fred Hutch.
“I wrapped the brick in towels and we told Linda I needed to return (the towels) to the lab on our way to dinner so we could walk across the Hutch campus,” said Conerly. Accompanying Conerly and Scott were Linda and John, Peck and her two children, Summer and Jordy, who were 3 years old and 9 months at the time.
Conerly acted as tour guide. “I showed Linda the Nobel Prize, saying without participation like your dad’s it would never have been awarded, and showed them the Mundie Courtyard,” explaining how so many bricks and slates there had been dedicated to family members. Then, when Linda’s back was turned, Conerly slipped her brick among the others and called Summer over.
“She’s learning to read, so I said, ‘Summer, what does that say?’ And Linda came over to see what Summer was reading,” Conerly remembered.
When Linda saw the brick, “It was like she’d seen a ghost. She broke down,” said Scott. “It was a very sweet moment.”
“I thought, that brick looks loose, then I saw dad’s name! I told Melissa, ‘You’re responsible for this!’ It was such a beautiful moment,” Linda said.
Linda and John, together with Linda’s brother, Joe, and Katie and her family, will join Conerly and Scott for the official brick-unveiling tour Tuesday. Linda’s mother, Glenna, is now in her 90s and still lives independently near Linda and John. “Her short-term memory isn’t great, but whenever I remind her I’m going up there, she always reminds me to take lots of pictures. She wishes she could come,” Linda said.
“I tell everybody, nobody can top what my daughter-in-law gave me for Christmas!” she said.
Dr. Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.