Many thanks to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and the American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy for helping us share Laura’s story.
For lifelong Ohioan Laura Tiberi, 2023 was a year of celebrating life, a year she calls her “victory lap.” Laura and her husband Steve are Mimi and Pops to a blended family of four adult children and five grandchildren. 2023 brought a great deal of travel and a welcome connection with friends and family, making up for all Laura missed in the previous few years. Her word of the year was muchness taken from a small, inspirational book by Kobi Yamata which says, “This is your life. Live bravely, care deeply, share freely. Get the most out of each shining moment.” In 2023 Laura endeavored to do just that.
From 2019 to 2022, Laura lived through a string of life challenges tough enough to knock most of us off our feet: she lost her mother; moved her father into assisted living and ultimately hospice; and then, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, received a diagnosis of chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML).
In November of 2020, when Laura first began to feel unwell, she was no stranger to the medical realm; indeed, she’d spent much of her career advocating for medical professionals, first as the Director of Emergency Medical Services for the State of Ohio and for the last 20 years as the Executive Director of the Ohio Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Laura says of her work life, “I loved serving the medical professionals who serve their communities!” Then, Laura was suddenly on the receiving end of the professionals she’d served.
Her diagnosis unfolded very rapidly. When a nagging pain in her right side led to concerning blood labs at her primary care doctor’s office, she was directed to a local emergency room. Laura recalls, “They took blood, wheeled me down the hall for a CT scan, and by 10 PM I knew I was in trouble… I overheard the nurses say ‘oncology and hematology.’” Laura’s first act of self-advocacy was to request to be transferred to “The James,” The Ohio State University James Cancer Center, where she trusted she would receive outstanding care.
What followed was a year of extraordinary effort, hope, reversals and ultimately a happy return to good health. Laura sums up this complex time with the outlook of an optimist, “I had my first transplant using donor cells on February 15, 2021. This transplant failed beginning in September 2021. My second transplant – with a different unrelated donor- was on December 13th, 2021. Two transplants in one year!”
This challenging year also included incalculable gifts. As she recalls, “Before my second transplant, my family gathered to surprise me with an outdoor Thanksgiving/Christmas celebration. Her own compromised health and a continuing concern for COVID led the kids to put up outdoor heaters and a party tent and set up a full holiday table. My youngest daughter whispered in my ear that she and her husband were certainly expecting a baby… I had to be here for that --and I was. The following August, when Lorelai was born, I was at the hospital to greet her!” In fact, of Laura and Steve’s five grandchildren, Laura says of the two youngest, “I might not have met them without my transplant!”
When asked how she’s doing now, Laura responds with a spirit of gratitude and exuberance, “I’m alive! That’s the good thing.”
During a recent trip to New York, at a Broadway show, Laura was seated beside two couples speaking German. The language caught her attention because, as Laura explains, “My (second) donor was German…. You have these fantasies like ‘excuse me, have you ever donated to a bone marrow registry?’” Not long after, the identity of Laura’s German donor was revealed to her and she was able to fulfill the dream of thanking him personally, and by his name -Michael.
Beyond a full calendar of travel with family and friends, Laura’s idea of a relaxing, celebratory year included a vigorous schedule of giving back. “My number one focus for volunteerism these days is advocating and educating.” Her volunteer work includes attending donor registry events and becoming a Peer Connect mentor for Be The Match. Unable as yet to return to cycling, she continues to volunteer for Pelotonia, an annual Ohio bike ride and fundraiser committed to changing the world by accelerating innovative cancer research at The James Cancer Center. She also looks forward to volunteering with BMT InfoNet.
In support of transplant patients and those who care for them, on December 13th (in 2023, her 2nd transplant birthday) she returned to the unit where she twice received the ultimate gift of life from a stranger. There, she anonymously gifted each patient a small goodie bag of sundry and inspirational items. – including a small stuffed otter.
Shortly before her first transplant, Laura’s eldest daughter, who works as a school counselor and often finds ways to offer students inspiration, told Laura the story of the river otter: Imagine you are hanging tightly onto a tree branch in a river of unrelenting thrashing rapids, and you’re struggling to hold on. Now give yourself permission to let go and trust that the river is taking you where you are meant to go.
To remind Laura to “be like the river otter” her daughters gave Laura a stuffed otter as a talisman of protection. “It sounds crazy,” Laura says, “but that otter went to the hospital with me. (I named him James.) And, before I left, every staff member on the unit had an otter!”
Laura knows how much even a small gift matters in the hospital. She recalls, “I am lucky to have wonderful first cousins who, knowing my estimated hospitalization was 30 days, put together a treasure chest full of small wrapped gifts so that I could pull out one gift per day. They were small items – but a big bright spot! It was fun, meaningful, touching, and even on my worst days, a reminder of my family’s support.”
For Laura and Steve, on the cusp of 2024, the future is full. There are five grandchildren to enjoy, trips to take, gift bags to deliver, and, of course, one another to savor. Reflecting on Steve’s constancy, care and ability to keep their large family connected during her illness, Laura says, “I always thought I was the family hub, but now I think maybe he’s the hub. He took care of EVERYONE. My dad, all the kids and grandkids, even the dog.”
Laura has emerged from transplant with an intense appreciation for the bonds of caring, connection and community. Noting the power of text messages from friends, the inventive holiday celebrations of her children, and surprise treasure box from her cousins, Laura reflects, “Just to know I was being thought of and prayed for was an enormous gift. Now, I hope I never lose a chance to tell someone what they mean to me,” including her doctor, and the team at The James.
Today, Laura views life as a gift, brimming with promise, potential and possibility, even as she absorbs some of life’s fundamental losses. Laura notes that caring for her father was a daily privilege of love in 2023. Sadly, she lost him just before Christmas. But that she lived to survive him and hold his hand in his last days was a true, enduring blessing.
As one of the premier cancer hospitals and research institutes in the United States, The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute is home to one of the nation’s leading Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy programs. Since its inception in 1984, the program has grown to be nationally and internationally recognized for the caliber and expertise of its physicians and staff. Additionally, the nursing team has been nationally recognized multiple times for exceptional patient care by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
The American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy (ASTCT), formerly known as the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation, is a professional society of more than 2,200 healthcare professionals and scientists from over 45 countries who are dedicated to improving the application and success of blood and marrow transplantation and related cellular therapies. ASTCT strives to be the leading organization promoting research, education, and clinical practice to deliver the best, comprehensive patient care.