Many thanks to John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy for helping us share Dawn’s story.
Dawn Congiusti’s family motto is: “With family, the road of life is never traveled alone.” This is how she describes the decision she and her husband made to bring their two children, then “itty bitty, 8 and 4 years old” to the most significant doctor’s appointment of her life.
When she was 28 weeks pregnant with her third child, Dawn discovered she had two rare forms of leukemia. In exceptional ways, Dawn was accompanied by her family, cell to cell, through both cancer and cure. Ultimately, her mother would be her donor for a successful bone marrow transplant. And thus, three generations –Dawn’s mother Sue, Dawn herself, and Dawn’s unborn daughter, Tessa -- were biologically entangled. On an emotional and spiritual level, Dawn’s entire close-knit family – including both her parents, her two siblings and their families, her husband Scott and her two older children, Grant and Maia – took every step with her, as one.
Dawn vividly remembers the day of her diagnosis, “It was the week after St. Patrick’s Day, 2018. The hematologist came in and said, ‘Hey, can we take the kids with some coloring books to the nursing station over here?’ As soon as they were gone, he said, ‘I see leukemic cells… at least one type, and maybe two different types.’” At that point, as Dawn remembers, “My husband started getting green. I got off the exam table and let him lay down, I told the staff you need to get him some apple juice.” The first instinct of this young mother, pregnant with her third child, upon hearing that her life was in danger, was to tend to someone else’s distress.
Such an Olympian act of empathy comes as no surprise to those who know Dawn best. As Dawn’s sister Amy likes to say, “Dawn was put on this earth to serve others.” It’s easy to agree when hearing even an abridged list of Dawn’s involvement in her community, “I LOVE to volunteer, REALLY love to volunteer.” She’s a lector and Eucharistic minister at her church; a PTA class mom; “cookie mom” for daughter Maia’s Girl Scout troop; and she volunteers with the Hudson Valley Honor Flight.
Running underneath all this love in action is Dawn’s bedrock faith and positivity. As she recalls, “I felt, from the first moments, I’m gonna be ok. We’re gonna be ok.” Days later, when she arrived at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City to begin treatment, she sat in a pool of light in her room, on her hospital-issued bath towel on the floor, as Scott stood behind her and she filled with clarity: “I’m not scared or mad, I’m determined.”
Dawn would need that unwavering faith to get through the hardest parts of what lay ahead: delivering her daughter prematurely after undergoing chemotherapy; having to wait three days to hold her precious newborn because of an emergency C-section in an immunocompromised state; a fragile remission followed by a bone marrow transplant in December 2018; an acute case of GVHD that sent her to the ICU just days after New Year's in 2019 and after being discharged following her BMT; and a long, slow rehabilitation that included re-learning how to walk.
Through all of this, Dawn not only helped others, she also allowed others to help her. After learning that her initial treatment plan would require six weeks away from her children, she remembers, “We left hospital and the first person we called was our priest. I said to him, we all need your prayers. My focus quickly shifted and I went into mom-mode and knew we needed a family meeting. Scott’s parents came, my parents came, my siblings came and we organized care for the kiddos. This was our little village of people, and our closest friends filled in any gaps all did anything they could and more to help us get through this.”
Dawn took all the love that was beaming to her, and her family, and spread it like a contagious healing force, through Mt. Sinai and later John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, where she received her transplant. Dawn, who was always up and out of her room as soon and as often as she could and known for her many lengthy walks around the units accompanied by her IV pole, would write a simple message on the whiteboards that hung in the hallways on the oncology floor. Dawn explains, “My message was -- your inner strength is your driving force” which became her daily mantra - "You got this!" Meanwhile, Dawn, being Dawn, was making friends, “I listened. We laughed. I encouraged. I felt more comfortable letting down my guard because what I was going through wasn't easy and learned that it was ok to cry when people were watching.” Her strength came from her ability to bolster and believe, but also from her willingness to be vulnerable.
Dawn’s oncologist at Hackensack Medical Center, Dr. Jamie Koprivnikar, was a mirror of her upbeat confidence. As Dawn warmly recalls, she and Scott sat in the patient chairs and Dr. Koprivnikar sat on the exam table during their first visit. She was very matter of fact and 'Ok, this is what we are going to do.' That buoyant attitude was also reflected in Dawn’s transplant team, led by Dr. Michele Donato, who promised to help Dawn get back to being a mom. And here the circle of mothering, caring, gifting and healing completes, because, of all the family members tested and eager to donate, the person most desperate to give was Dawn’s own mom, Sue. As Dawn remembers, my mom was like swab me, swab me!” Though she was just turning 60 at the time, and thus among the last to be tested, Sue proved to be the best possible match, which delighted them both.
Always close, Sue and Dawn are now closer than ever, “We fought my fight together.” Dawn adds, “My mom likes to say she’s lucky because she gave birth to me twice.” Together is the way they do things, in Dawn’s family. Whether it’s fighting cancer, welcoming a new life, attending mass faithfully, taking an impromptu joy ride or hiking a coastline, they are in this life, this beautiful, surprising life, with gratitude, together.
Meet our Sponsors
The Blood and Marrow Stem Cell Transplantation Program at John Theurer Cancer Center (JTCC), part of Hackensack University Medical Center, is one of the largest in the United States, with more than 400 transplants performed each year, and the second transplant facility to be FACT accredited. Our team was also the first in the United States to be recognized by the Joint Commission to receive Disease-Specific Care Certification for stem cell transplantation. JTCC was the first site certified to provide CAR T-cell therapy in New Jersey. We are active participants in many important studies of novel medicines and transplant techniques. Our transplant team is committed to delivering the most advanced care and cutting-edge treatment to improve our patients’ outcomes. We also offer a wide-range of resources to support our patients’ physical and emotional well-being before, during and after transplantation.
Photo Credit: Cassondre Mae Photography Warwick, NY cassondremaephotography.com