Not long after David Rhodes underwent a stem cell transplant to treat his leukemia, the nurses at UC Davis Cancer Center gave him a nickname: Ironman.
Rhodes has no immediate plans to compete in a triathlon. Unlike most transplant patients, he is a senior citizen – and a grandpa. As recently as the mid-1990s, Rhodes, 72, would not have been a candidate for the procedure that saved his life. Advances in the use of lower-toxicity therapies changed that.
"People used to say you had to be an Olympic athlete to tolerate a transplant," says Carol Richman, professor of hematology and oncology and director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Transplant Program. "Mr. Rhodes is a great example of how far things have come."
Rhodes is one of more than 500 patients who have received stem cell transplants at UC Davis Cancer Center since 1993. Led by the widely respected Richman, the team includes specialists in all areas of transplant science and patient care. The program is the largest and most experienced of its kind in inland Northern California and the region's only National Marrow Donor Transplant Program, giving patients access to potential donors worldwide.
Richman and pediatric oncologist Douglas Taylor oversee up to 60 transplants each year, achieving success rates that meet or exceed national averages. In May 2008, the program was accredited for the full range of adult and pediatric transplant services by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy. This milestone gives UC Davis patients access to a wider range of national transplant clinical trials and increases the number of insurance companies covering the procedure.
Complex and intense, the field often leads to burnout for physicians, who shoulder a caseload of seriously ill patients requiring intensive followup. Against that backdrop, Richman stands out, says Ted Wun, who performed UC Davis' first stem cell transplant with her in 1993.
"I honestly, truly have never seen another physician more devoted to patients," says Wun, vice chief of hematology and oncology at UC Davis. "She gives them her pager number and follows up with them while she's on vacation or at medical meetings. It is extremely rare to find a physician like her nowadays."
Richman came to UC Davis in 1992 from Chicago, where she had a reputation as a skilled and compassionate physician. Early in her career, she participated in some of the first stem cell transplants at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and has since been driven to perfect the process. When she arrived at UC Davis, she established the transplant program, eliminating the need for patients to travel long distances for the procedure.
For Richman, watching patients recover and regain or even improve quality of life is tremendously rewarding. Here are a few of their stories.