Overture to a cure

Vicki Reidel and family

by Vicki Riedel

My husband, Joe, and I went straight from the pediatrician’s office to Egleston Children’s Hospital to meet with George Brumley, then chair of pediatrics at Emory and chief medical officer at Egleston (now part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta).

Brumley was a dear friend, and I knew him well from my development work for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. We trusted him. We knew he would tell us the right thing to do.



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We asked him straight out, “If this was your daughter, your child, would you stay here for treatment, or would you go elsewhere?” He examined the options with us, and he felt we were safe in starting treatment for Ansley at Egleston. But Brumley acknowledged that we might have to go to a hospital elsewhere if things took a turn for the worse.

That marked the beginning of an amazing treatment journey for our family that was to stretch over several years. AML is a tough disease that tends not to stay in remission. Bone marrow transplants were still relatively rare in the late 1980s as a curative treatment for AML. Ansley was able to join a clinical trial at Egleston that randomized patients either to chemotherapy or an autologous bone marrow transplant, in which a patient’s own marrow is treated with high-dose chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells and then is reinfused.

She received her transplant during the Christmas season of 1988, but it failed. She relapsed within a month.

Next she started an aggressive course of chemotherapy, and with this approach, she did really well. So well, in fact, that Joe and I started talking about having another child. We saw genetic counselors, who after discussing our situation, encouraged us to go ahead. I got pregnant right away, and the timing turned out to be critical.

Ansley went off treatment in November of 1990. Our son, Joseph, was born in February of 1991. Ansley relapsed in March. We immediately had Joseph tested for bone marrow compatibility with Ansley, and he was a perfect match. That gave us a much, much more viable option for treatment. But we decided to leave Atlanta for the next phase.

The reasons for our decision were multiple. Our son, at 4 months old, would be the youngest ever bone marrow donor. Ansley too was so young, only 3-1/2, and had already been through so much therapy. We chose to go to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, then the largest center in the world performing bone marrow transplants for both adults and children. Even Brumley said, “You’ve got to go.”

My husband and I had amazing employers, who allowed us to move to Seattle for four months to take care of Ansley. The symphony let me continue to work part-time from the remote location so we could keep our health insurance. My mom went with us. And it turned out so well. Joseph had really rich bone marrow. He was our little hero, and Ansley remained our little star. We got to keep her.

Expanding a fund-raising repertoire

Coming back to Atlanta was such a profound experience. I loved the orchestra more than ever for what it had done for us.

I had come up through music, with my dad being a high school band director and playing clarinet myself with the Florida West Coast Youth Symphony and other professional ensembles during and after college. At one point, I even thought I’d pursue a performance career. Then my practical side led me to a career in working in development for music. I first met my husband, an electrical engineer who has a master’s degree in music, at a chamber music festival. So the members of the Atlanta Symphony had known me when I was single, with a boyfriend, engaged, married, pregnant, with children. I went back to the orchestra for a full two years after we came back from Seattle. They were like family to me. I owed them.

Still I knew in the back of my mind that our experience in seeking treatment for Ansley had changed me. I felt that any talents I had around fund-raising should be redirected to cancer care. In 1994, I joined the development team at Egleston and was there during the hospital’s merger with Scottish Rite to form Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. My focus was cancer and organ transplant, areas about which I am passionate. It was a professional and personal joy to work with the generous and caring folks at Aflac to play a small, early role in building what is now a top five pediatric cancer program in the country, a cancer center where today a family like ours could make the choice to stay home in Georgia for treatment.

Quote from Vicki Riedel about her family

I stayed at Egleston and Children’s for six years until corporate demands from my husband’s job and the needs of my growing children told me it was time to leave. During my absence, I coincidentally gained more leadership experience by volunteering to run campaigns for the Paideia School and Camp Sunshine, an incredible organization that supports children with cancer and their families.

When my children got older, I decided to come back to full-time work as a fund-raiser for Emory Winship Cancer Institute. Winship’s vision is to become Georgia’s first National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, and I thought my contribution could be in developing the fund-raising program and raising awareness of Emory’s cancer program in the community.

I felt so strongly that a state-of-the-art cancer center was critically important for Georgia. My family was so fortunate to have had the financial and emotional wherewithal to go thousands of miles away for the absolute best care for our daughter, but far too many families that I knew could never consider that possibility.

The blessing of having been able to see my daughter grow up has fueled my passion for raising funds for Winship. Ansley, now 21, is a junior at Sewanee, majoring in psychology with plans to study to be an oncology nurse. She volunteers at Camp Sunshine and mentors other children with cancer. She’s here today because of research advances.

Finding the right key

In making the case for Emory Winship, I often go back to Robert Woodruff’s story. The former president and chairman of the Coca-Cola Company, Woodruff made his first gift to Emory in 1937 to provide a place dedicated solely to treating and curing cancer. The name was chosen in honor of Robert Winship Woodruff’s mother and grandfather, who both died of cancer.

Today, we’ve got a cancer center that would make Woodruff proud. We treat more than 12,000 cancer patients each year, and our physicians and scientists are contributing major research discoveries to advance prevention, early detection, and cures. We draw on the talents of people throughout Emory’s School of Medicine, the Rollins School of Public Health, and the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. The Woodruff Foundation, the Georgia Research Alliance, and the Georgia Cancer Coalition are tremendous partners, providing generous support for buildings, labs, and equipment and making it possible to recruit more than 50 premier physician-scientists to Winship.

Now our responsibility is to retain those stars. It is important for us to have the best research and clinical trial programs as well as provide the support families need as they go through their cancer journey. We’ve got a responsibility to continue making Winship the best place it can be for cancer care and research for Georgians. That’s the reason I raise money for Emory Winship Cancer Institute.

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