When Rose Ibarra was little, her dad took her to her first baseball game: The Seattle Mariners were playing the Yankees at the Kingdome. That night, Sept. 30, 1997, a local hero by the name of Ken Griffey Jr. famously hit three home runs.
On opening night at Safeco Field this evening, Ibarra is going to switch places. She will be bringing her dad, Dick Egge, to the game.
This time, the Mariners are going to recognize a different local hero: West Seattle’s Ibarra.
A two-time survivor of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she is the first of nine “Hutch Heroes” to be honored by the Mariners and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center during Thursday home games this season. They will be spotlighted for displaying the same determination, strength and resolve of Seattle baseball legend Fred Hutchinson, for whom the research center was named.
“I’m really excited because I get to bring my dad, who is retired now and is a huge Mariners fan,” Ibarra said. She will walk out with her father onto the field for a Hutch Heroes ceremony during a break between innings.
It is pretty clear who she thinks is a hero.
“He basically has been to every doctor’s appointment,” she said. “My dad drove over to the hospital every day. So this is a little gift back to him.”
Now 32 and the mother of a 3-year-old named Gus, Ibarra is healthy and working as a writer for Seattle Children’s Hospital. Yet this young Seattle working mom has lived through trying times since May 12, 2011, when her life was upended by the blood cancer diagnosis.
It took six months of extensive chemotherapy, but by 2012 her cancer was gone. She married the love of her life, Angel Ibarra, who had proposed to her on a trip to Maui to celebrate her remission. The couple were delighted to find out her fertility was not damaged by her treatments, and just about four years after her diagnosis, along came Gus.
But the Ibarra family’s joy that year was short-lived. Just five months after the birth of their son, the cancer came back. Her relapsed leukemia was deemed high risk. Her doctors recommended a transplant — blood stem cells from a matched donor — to give her a new immune system.
“When I found out I had to have a transplant, I had already written about the procedure,” Ibarra said. “I knew how serious it was. I was more terrified than I’d ever been in my life. I was barely holding it together.”
Among her biggest concerns was a common complication of transplantation: graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD. It occurs when the new immune cells from the donor (the graft) attack healthy tissues of the recipient (the host). In about half of such transplant patients, GVHD can develop as a chronic, debilitating disease. It can be fatal.
Then Ibarra heard about a clinical trial led by Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Marie Bleakley. The idea was that only certain types of donated blood cells were most responsible for the development of chronic GVHD. If those unwanted cells, known as naïve T cells, could be weeded out before the transplant, more patients might be spared of this complication.
“I was presented with the protocol, and with having to make a decision to go with it,” Ibarra recalled. “It was a very scary decision to make, especially with a little man at home, relying on me.”
She said Bleakley and her Fred Hutch team addressed her concerns head-on.
“They were very patient with me. They did not dumb things down. They did not sugarcoat it. They very carefully walked me through the study protocol,” she said. “For the first time, I started to feel a little bit of confidence.”
On March 1, 2016, she underwent the transplant. For Ibarra, it worked. She experienced only mild, temporary GVHD symptoms.
To date, Bleakely and her team have reported results of the new procedure showing that less than 10 percent of the trial patients suffered from chronic GVHD, compared to historical averages of about 50 percent. The new approach will soon be tested head-to-head with the standard transplant process, moving it a step closer toward wider use in patients like Ibarra.
Today, she still has monthly checkups, but she’s back to work and moving forward.
“I wouldn’t say I am back to a normal life,” Ibarra said, “but I’ve gotten back the things that are important to me.”
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.