Love, labor and transplant falls into place for donors Morton and Sandra Saffer
Today, love stories can seem reserved for romantic comedies or sappy daytime dramas. That is, until you meet Morton and Sandra Saffer.
Their story is one for the movies—even after Mort, a West Point graduate, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1997, Sandra says their story was straight out of An Officer and a Gentleman. During groundbreaking treatments at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Mort became one of the oldest recipients of a bone marrow transplant at the time and through it all, Sandy stood by his side.
Mort and Sandy’s love story began long before the diagnosis. After West Point, Mort flew for the United States Army Air Corps. The couple met on a blind date in 1972 and was inseparable after that night.
“We spent the evening looking for places to go so that the date would not end,” says Sandy. “There was an immediate click.” Together they built a plastic manufacturing company that is still thriving today and lovingly raised three children—a son, Joseph, and two daughters, Jeryl and Lori.
Twenty-five years into their marriage, at age 69, Mort was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma starts in the lymphocyte cells—a type of white blood cell that helps combat infections from viruses, fungi and bacteria. Symptoms of the cancer may include swollen lymph nodes, pain in the armpits or groin, unexplained weight loss, fever, excessive night sweats, and fatigue that will not subside. The National Cancer Institute estimates that nearly 70,000 men and women will be diagnosed with the disease and approximately 20,000 people will lose their lives to it in 2013.
Patients like Mort are often given many treatment options, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy and stem cell transplants. Mort’s oncologists recommended that he opt for chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant when his disease was diagnosed as recurrent.
The question was whether Mort—almost 70— was eligible for a transplant. Not only was Mort older than most bone marrow transplant patients, he had also suffered a heart attack the previous year. With a blood-borne cancer, the goal is to give the patient a new blood system, but the procedure requires resilience. Doctors didn’t know if Mort’s body could withstand a transplant.
Mort’s persistence eventually convinced doctors it was worth a try. At the old University of Colorado Hospital, Mort became one of the oldest men to receive a stem cell transplant, as well as the first man to go through the treatment after suffering a heart attack a year prior.
“It was very difficult and traumatic watching him go through the stages,” Saffer says. “He was in isolation for two weeks for the transplant.” After isolation Mort spent 10 days in the outpatient wing and was then allowed to return home.
The experimental treatment was a huge success and Mort’s cancer never returned. Doctors don’t like to use the “cure” word, but this is about as close as one can get. In 2007, a decade after Mort’s treatment, on the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary, Mort passed away. He was almost 80.
Since Mort’s passing, the Saffer family has generously donated funds for an endowed chair for lymphoma research at the CU Cancer Center.
“This chair will allow us to recruit a world class specialist in lymphoma for either or both research and patient care,” says Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, director of CU Cancer Center. “Generosity such as that demonstrated by Sandy and her family is critically important if we are to build a top 10 cancer center in Colorado.”
Saffer says, “I am so impressed with the work the Cancer Center is doing. I know Mort would have been very pleased with everything.”