By Patty Gelb
That was especially true for Ron Cady (Bus ’88). His longtime friend and college fraternity brother, Tom Dusza (A/S ’87, Law ’90) did just that for his son Jacob. Approaching the tenth anniversary of the selfless act, Ron and his wife, Chris (A/S ’97), wanted to find a way not only thank their friend but they also hoped to raise awareness of an important cause that can help save the lives of countless others.
It was mid-December in 2003 when Chris Cady took their three-year-old son, Jacob, to the doctor after noticing a small bump under his rib. They were immediately sent to the hospital and by the end of the day, the Perrysburg, Ohio, couple knew that Jacob had a tumor. Following testing and biopsies, they quickly found out it was malignant. But, it ended up being Christmas Eve when they received a call from Jacob’s oncologist, Dr. Rama Jasty, at Mercy Children’s Hospital that the news got even worse. Jacob was diagnosed with Rhabdoid tumor of the liver, an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Due to the holidays, things could have been delayed and treatment could have been on hold. But Dr. Jasty spent Christmas Day 2003 planning Jacob’s treatment and he was admitted to the hospital the very next day. The doctor’s persistence in getting a correct diagnosis and dedication in finding a course of treatment for Jacob meant so much to the Cady family.
Jacob began a series of chemotherapy, which was going well. But to truly beat this cancer, the next course of action after Ron and Chris talked with doctors and did research was a liver transplant. Ten years ago, very few hospitals were doing transplants with this cancer diagnosis because it was believed to be a terminal outcome. The Cady’s found only five facilities in the country that did pediatric organ transplants for cancer at that time. After researching the procedures and the survival rates among the surgeons and hospitals, they were led to Dr. Adela Casas-Melley at Nemours A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.
“When we called Dr. Casas, what really struck us was she actually answered her own office phone,” said Chris. “It was so comforting and she was so congenial. We knew we were in the best hands possible. It was like she was our best friend.”
Originally, Ron hoped to be the donor for his son. He went through a number of tests but he was rejected as the possible donor. Other family members of the Cady’s came forward but no one was a match. Jacob went on the national donation list and was against the clock waiting for an appropriate cadaver donation.
At the same time, Chris and Ron had begun a CaringBridge website for Jacob. CaringBridge is a non-profit online website community with the mission “to amplify the love, hope and compassion in the world, making each health journey easier.” On this website, the Cady’s were able to post updates about Jacob to friends and family around the country.
“Deb got the email first through our personal account and she sent it over to me at work,” Tom said. “I replied to her immediately, ‘I am going to do this.’ She said that she knew that as soon as she sent it to me. She didn’t know why, but she just knew.”
Tom knew he could potentially be a match for Jacob, because he has type O negative blood. He reached out to the family and began the process to determine if he would be a good fit. Tom went through pre-operative testing.
“I also had to go through a mental health screening, I guess to make sure I wasn’t crazy and that I wanted to do it,” Tom joked.
Tom also reached out to a pediatrician who was a personal friend and asked what he was getting himself into.
“He told me, ‘Short term it’s going to suck, long term it’s ok. But what more can you do in this life that is this worthwhile,’” Tom recalled, fully agreeing with that sentiment.
Once Tom cleared all of the tests and it was determined that he was a perfect match for Jacob, the surgery was scheduled.
The transplant surgeries, performed by Dr. Casas and her partner Dr. Stephen Dunn, went very well.
“If it weren’t for their progressive thinking in using organ transplant as a way to treat pediatric cancer, who knows where we would be today”’ said Chris.
Jacob survived the transplant and was recovering in a medically-induced coma. The first time he woke up he said that he wanted a chocolate donut. But, later that day they had a little scare having to go back into surgery to remove a piece of intestine that had kinked and died off. Besides that issue, things could not have gone better for Jacob.
The surgery was on a Tuesday. Tom got out of the hospital on Saturday and was back to work on the following Monday.
Tom felt the effects of the surgery for about six to eight weeks, the time it takes your liver to regenerate. Early on, he left work early and took it a little easier but recovered quickly from his part of the transplant. But what he did really impacted Ron and Chris.
“You know when it really hit me was when they were both done with surgery and in the ICU,” Ron shared. “Going in and seeing Tom, basically ripped wide open for my son. That was pretty impactful. He put himself at risk by doing this and thank God he never had any complications.”
Right after the transplant, Jacob followed up with three more rounds of chemo. He finished all treatment in July of 2004 and his care was transferred to Dr. John Bucuvalas at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital which was closer for Jacob’s frequent follow up appointments. He had to have regular blood work ranging from weekly to monthly to check liver numbers and to make sure the transplant was taking. Jacob did really well and had no incidents of rejection.
Jacob was doing so well that after a time, Dr. Bucuvalas talked to the Cady’s about participating in a national study. The goal of the study is to determine if children can be safely weaned from immune suppression medications. The focus was to develop a method to help physicians to identify patients who are good candidates for safe withdrawal and those for which withdrawal may not be a good idea. There are risks of staying on these forms of anti-rejection medication. They can lead to kidney failure as well as other forms of cancer. The Cady’s agreed that minimizing Jacob’s exposure to immunosuppression drugs would be the best long term.
“There were very strict criteria for Jacob to be able to participate in the study,” Chris said. “They did a liver biopsy looking for genetic markers to make sure he was a candidate and he met all of the qualifications. He started the weaning process about a year and a half ago and as of July of 2013 he was fully weaned. This is a really big study. Jacob is the furthest along of all of the kids who were approved at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to participate. He is doing great.”
Now 13, Jacob is happy and healthy. He participates in sports and has no issues. A forward for his school’s basketball team that played in their league semi-finals this season, he also plays competitive tennis year-round. He is doing well in school and is also in an upcoming dinner-theater murder mystery called “Once Upon a Murder.”
Some potential long-term effects of young kids who go through chemo can include trouble hearing, heart problems, stunted growth and numerous other detrimental issues. Jacob experienced none of those side effects.
“He is off the charts on height and he can hear perfectly,” Ron said. “I know he acts like he can’t when we call him for chores, but he hasn’t had any of the usual side effects.”
Ron and Chris are both so grateful for every day.
“The whole thing has been a miracle since the beginning,” said Ron. “If you look up the form of cancer that Jacob had, it is extremely rare. It generally begins as a kidney cancer. People just don’t do what Jacob has been able to do. You just don’t find success stories with this type of cancer.”
As the Cady’s approached the tenth anniversary of this personal life journey, they wanted to take the opportunity to recognize Tom.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” said Ron. “Tom was instrumental in saving Jacob’s life. There is no amount of gratitude. It’s really hard and the thing we struggled with at first and still do is how can you thank someone enough? I figured the 10-year anniversary would be the perfect timing because 10 years is a big deal.”
The Cady’s thought an appropriate way to share their thanks again was to somehow recognize Tom through UT. Aside from Jacob, it is the one common thread both families share. Two of the Dusza boys are already at UT, with the third starting in the fall of 2014. Ron and Chris’s daughter Jordan will be attending UT. Even Jacob, who is interested in something involving computers or engineering wants to be a future Rocket. Both families have season tickets to UT basketball and football games and are involved in the Alumni Association. They both loved their time at UT and there is such a strong UT tie with these families that Ron felt it was an appropriate to find a way to thank Tom in a UT kind of way.
“I emailed both Dan Saevig, associate vice president of the UT Alumni Association and Tod Kowalczyk, head coach for men’s basketball to see if I could get something started to recognize the tenth anniversary,” Ron said. They both emailed me back the very same day saying it would happen. Dan was great in getting the ball rolling.”
What was arranged was for Tom and his son Jacob to stand center court during the March 1 UT men’s basketball game against Western Michigan. Tom was presented a game ball in recognition of what he did to the applause of the attending crowd.
“Tom really likes to keep things pretty low key,” said Ron. “Frankly part of me knows that he was probably not thrilled about being honored at the basketball game, but how do you thank someone enough?”
The Cady’s also wanted to raise awareness of an issue that has become very important to them – the importance of organ donation. Without the life-saving transplant that Jacob was able to have, it is likely that he would not be with the family today.
“Our goal was to honor Tom,” said Chris. “But we also want to make people more aware of organ and living donor donations. We have always tried to be available to other families and to answer questions for other parents who have had a child in a similar situation as Jacob. It is so important for people to be aware of what a gift of life this is.”
When asked what he thought about being recognized at the basketball game Tom shared, “What is good about it is it brings awareness to the issue of organ donation. If one person decides to step up and thinks it is a good idea because of this, then it is worthwhile. Seeing Jacob, almost 14, it is very rewarding personally knowing I would never want to be in that position as a parent with the threat of a loss of a child to a disease like that. It is nice to know that you can make a difference in someone’s life sometimes.”
To see a video of the presentation, Click Here to see a YouTube video taken by Ron Cady at the basketball game.