Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute celebrates 1,000th bone marrow transplant milestone.

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Levine Cancer Institute Celebrates 1,000th Bone Marrow Transplant

Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute celebrates 1,000th bone marrow transplant milestone.

Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute recently celebrated a major milestone as the team completed its 1,000th bone marrow transplant. For patients with blood cancer or a blood disorder, a bone marrow transplant (also called a blood and marrow transplant or stem cell transplant) can be lifesaving. During a bone marrow transplant, healthy blood stem cells are infused into the body to replace unhealthy marrow cells.

LCI’s 1,000th bone marrow transplant recipient

Cherryville resident Vickie Porter, 66, was LCI’s 1,000th transplant recipient. Before her myelodysplastic syndrome diagnosis, Vickie was active, healthy and working in the banking industry. She had never faced a serious illness and had never been in the hospital.

In 2021, Vickie noticed that she was experiencing extreme shortness of breath. She went to her local family medicine physician and he suspected heart issues or anemia. Then, he also noticed her blood count was very low, so he referred her to Levine Cancer Institute—Lincolnton, where she saw Kwabena Boateng, MD, a hematologist/oncologist. After reviewing Vickie’s test results, Dr. Boateng decided to send Vickie to Brittany Ragon, MD, a hematologist/oncologist and transplant specialist at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, for further testing and treatment.

Initially, Vickie was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition where the bone marrow’s blood-forming cells become abnormal. A risk of myelodysplastic syndrome is that it can transform into acute myeloid leukemia (AML). After reviewing Vickie’s case, transformation to AML was identified.

“For someone of her age, the standard initial treatment for acute myeloid leukemia is offered in the inpatient setting, and we generally move quickly to get patients started on treatment,” says Dr. Ragon.

Vickie went home that night, packed for her hospital stay and underwent inpatient chemotherapy for five weeks.

After Vickie completed chemotherapy, Dr. Ragon determined that, with her disease features, stem cell transplantation would provide Vickie with the best chance of long-term remission and a cure.

“Mrs. Porter is an active woman with no significant co-morbidities,” says Dr. Ragon. “We did extensive testing, which confirmed that she was a good candidate for allogeneic stem cell transplantation. Our first goal before going to transplant is to achieve a remission, to make the leukemia go away. The goal of the transplant is to maintain remission.”

Vickie achieved a complete remission from her initial chemotherapy, so her care team moved forward with the transplant process.

“It was truly wonderful how Dr. Ragon explained the process to me and gave me all the information, so I knew what to expect,” says Vickie. “When she said, ‘You could be cured,’ that was the best message I could have heard.”

“We have a fantastic team that helps us prepare our patients for transplant, and everyone contributed to helping Mrs. Porter wrap her mind around the transplant process,” says Dr. Ragon. “Based on her age and remission status, we provided her a reduced-intensity regimen along with her transplant, which helps to decrease some of the toxicities that can occur.”

The regimen included a dose of total body irradiation, which helps prepare the bone marrow to accept new cells from a donor.

“It was easy,” says Vickie. “They just put the cells in my port—it was like giving blood. It didn’t take long at all.”

Though Vickie experienced weakness and fatigue following the transplant, she said, “I coped because of the Lord. He was a blessing. I had my Bible and my daily devotions. I also read and watched TV.”

Vickie also credits Dr. Ragon and her medical team for her successful treatment journey.

“I love [Dr. Ragon]—she is the absolute best,” says Vickie. “The nurses, the doctors, the techs, everyone—I just can’t say enough good things about them.”

And she’s grateful to have received care close to home.

“It feels wonderful to get [treatment] here,” says Vickie. “I can’t imagine having to go somewhere else.”

Now that she’s in remission, Vickie is committed to eating healthy meals and exercising regularly. And she’s planning to enjoy an upcoming cruise.

“Mrs. Porter did very well through the transplant admission, as we expected that she would,” says Dr. Ragon. “The journey ahead is still involved, but we will focus on one day at a time and expect a long, healthy and leukemia-free life for her.”

The bone marrow transplant program at LCI

LCI’s bone marrow transplant unit was the first of its kind in the region. The transplant and cellular therapy division is fully accredited by the Foundation for Accreditation of Cellular Therapy and reports outcomes among the best in the country.

LCI’s long-time leaders, Edward Copelan, MD, and Belinda Avalos, MD, started the stem cell transplant program and it quickly grew to where it is today. Drs. Copelan and Avalos recently announced they would transition into advisory roles at LCI, welcoming the next generation of leaders. Drs. Avalos and Copelan emphasize that the program’s growth and success is due to the highly skilled and compassionate team that has been involved every step of the way, and whose contributions were instrumental in reaching this significant milestone, including Lynn Sanders, Jessica Stewart, Laura Horne, Jen Elder, and Jing Ai. 

“I am just a small part of an extraordinary team of people who got us where we are today,” says Dr. Ragon. “I will be forever grateful to Dr. Copelan and Dr. Avalos for coming here and establishing this program. They built this program with people who have brilliant minds and, more importantly, extremely kind and caring hearts. I have never worked with people who are as collegial with such a shared vision to help patients so profoundly.”

Raised in the Carolinas, Dr. Ragon’s goal was to provide care for people in this region.

“I was extremely disheartened to see patients traveling away from their home in the most difficult moments of their lives to get the care they deserved to get at home,” says Dr. Ragon. “So, I went away for my training to places with world-renowned experts with the hope that I could bring back what I learned to the people of the Carolinas. Thanks to the vision and leadership of Dr. Copelan, Dr. Avalos and Dr. [Derek] Raghavan, there was a place for me to come home to, and I have been able to do exactly what I always dreamed of—care for the people of the Carolinas in the Carolinas.”

She adds, “So many people were important to this journey to getting to the 1,000th transplant. We are really just beginning.”

Learn more about bone marrow transplantation at Levine Cancer Institute.