Stem cell transplant cements Arizona men’s father-son bond

GILBERT, Arizona (AP) – Thirty-five years after an Arizona man cared for his son when he was shot in their native Lebanon, the son is returning that devotion.

Both the Reverend John Ibraham Sabbagh and his 54-year-old son, Ebby Sabbagh, are celebrating one year of going strong since the elder Sabbagh received a crucial stem cell transplant. After undergoing chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia, the 88-year-old opted to undergo the transplant in September, 2017, at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, about 32 kilometres southeast of Phoenix.

It was Ebby, also the oldest son, who ended up being enough of a match and providing the stem cells.

“We all have learnt from this: Be a positive fighter,” Ebby said on Friday as he helped his father stand to look at the cake hospital staff provided for his transplant anniversary. “If he doesn’t give up, we don’t give up.”

Dr Rajneesh Nath has done stem cell transplants on several elderly patients. But never on one as old as John. Nath said he could tell after chemotherapy and other low-intensity therapies that the elder Sabbagh was strong for his age.

Reverend John Sabbagh hugs nurse practitioner Kim O’Riley in Gilbert
Dr Rajneesh Nath watches Reverend John Sabbagh blow out candles on his cake for his one-year transplant anniversary as Sabbagh’s grandson John (R) looks on in Gilbert. – PHOTOS: AP

“He was walking the hallways and his ability to tolerate (treatment) was not any different than any of the younger patients we treated,” Nath said.

It was ultimately John’s decision and he wanted to take the most aggressive approach. The elder Sabbagh, who was a chaplain for Arizona Department of Corrections for 13 years, said he thinks of himself as a fighter.

“A fighter, but not in negative way,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program at the University of Arizona Cancer Center Dr Andrew Yeager said ‘Boy, you had the guts to transplant to someone in their late 80’s.”

“It’s really up there and atypical,” Yeager said.

An elderly transplant recipient may have a harder time in some areas such as recovery.

Donor stem cells can go on the attack post-transplant, a condition known as graft-versus-host disease. That can be debilitating even for a young patient. Also, Yeager said, patients aged 60 and older sometimes already have underlying issues with their major organs.

Ebby said their roles are now essentially reversed from when he was shot in Tripoli in 1983 during the Lebanese Civil War.

Ebby had just turned 18. He was driving his dad’s car to pick up ice cream after finishing exams. Several men sprayed his car with gunfire at a surprise checkpoint, Ebby said.

Despite shrapnel wounds and part of his left leg getting torn off, he managed to drive away.

Eventually friends helped get him to a hospital. He was later transferred to a hospital in Beirut and spent more than three months there in recovery. John made the two-hour commute from Tripoli to stay in the hospital or with friends.

“Through this whole thing, Dad was right by me,” Ebby recalled. “He refused to go home until he takes me with him.”

The experience of helping his father through cancer has in some ways brought them closer.

“What I’m getting back is tonnes. Every moment I cherish,” Ebby said. “We’ve really had some amazing moments together.”

John will have to have another bone marrow biopsy this month to see if the cancer is still present or has grown. Even with that uncertainty hanging over the whole family, Ebby said they have no regrets.

“Having that opportunity to extend his life, to be able to counter this disease – was it worth it to do this? The answer is yes,” he said.