On Jan. 1, 68 year-old Voeltz will be riding on the City of Hope's float in the Rose Parade along with eight others who were successfully treated at the cancer treatment and research center in Duarte, Calif.
When Mount Shasta’s Leif Voeltz nearly lost his life to Acute Myeloid Leukemia, he didn’t know that one of the worst things that ever happened to him would also lead to amazing opportunities he’d never experience otherwise.
On Jan. 1, 68 year-old Voeltz will be riding on the City of Hope’s float in the Rose Parade along with eight others who were successfully treated at the cancer treatment and research center in Duarte, Calif.
“I am very very grateful and fortunate for the embrace and love I felt from the Mount Shasta community,” said Voeltz about the outpouring of support he felt when he fell gravely ill five years ago and during his subsequent fight against AML.
Since receiving a bone marrow transplant from a German donor, Voeltz, the former owner of The Fifth Season and a prominent Mount Shasta outdoorsman, has been cancer-free for more than four years after being told, at one point, that he had a two percent chance of survival.
This year will be the 48th time City of Hope has participated in the Rose Parade. At last year’s parade, City of Hope’s “Harmony of Hope” float won the President Award for “most outstanding use and presentation of flowers.”
“This year’s luscious and vibrant floral display outperforms all of City of Hope’s previous floats,” according to a press release. The float’s focal point is “Father Time,” with white doves in flight celebrating “new beginnings and the freedom that comes with a new start.” A DNA strand and butterflies “symbolize the scientific discoveries made at City of Hope that have led to the development of breakthrough cancer drugs ... that have saved countless lives.”
“The tree is surrounded by flowers so that patients, physicians, nurses and staff can literally stop and smell the flowers,” the release states. “It is a representation of the Rose Garden and Japanese Garden on the City of Hope main campus, two places where patients and their loved ones can pause, relax and reflect.”
Voeltz said he went to the Rose Parade once, when he was a kid in the 1950s or early 60s, but never dreamed about riding on a float.
Voeltz said he’s happy to promote City of Hope for all they’ve done for him and joked that he’s the “old man of the crew,” which includes a 14 year-old from Las Vegas who beat a rare type of bone cancer, telangiectatic osteosarcoma; a 58 year-old Laguna Beach woman who is fighting Stage 4 multiple myeloma; an 18 year-old North Carolina girl who successfully fought aplastic anemia with two stem cell transplants; and a 51 year-old Pasadena woman who has spent 12 years fighting breast cancer.
Meeting his donor
Voeltz had the honor of meeting the stranger who saved his life in May during the City of Hope’s donor/recipient reunion.
Marcel Waldmann, who is now 28, will be visiting Voeltz and his wife, Lacy, again next year when he returns to the United States to visit Mount Shasta in honor of Voeltz’s fifth transplant birthday.
It turns out that Voeltz and Waldmann have a lot in common – both are avid skiers, climbers and hikers.
Voeltz said when he met Waldmann, “it was difficult to process that kind of giving.”
The donation process wasn’t without pain, said Voeltz. Waldmann had to take medication that encouraged his body to create extra stem cells and blood, which was an uncomfortable experience.
“To do that for a complete stranger ... how do you thank someone for that?” said Voeltz. “How do you get that kind of gratitude across?”
Although he’d never been on a plane in his life, Waldmann traveled to Duarte to meet Voeltz for the May reunion. They went to Disneyland together and shared life stories.
Voeltz was diagnosed with leukemia in August of 2014, although he had been feeling off for months. He and Lacy were in southern California for a wedding when Voeltz felt like he had the flu and went to the emergency room. Within an hour, his organs began failing and he fell into a coma spurred by sepsis.
Once his liver started to fail, Voeltz was given a two percent chance of survival. He received antibiotics intravenously for the sepsis and low-dose chemotherapy for the blood cancer.
After six months of treatment, Voeltz was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve, seemingly cured.
In July of 2015, however, Voeltz relapsed; the leukemia came back with a vengeance.
While searching desperately for a bone marrow donor, Voeltz prepared by undergoing intense chemotherapy to rid his body of cancer, making him feel sicker than he ever had before. He received his transplant from Waldmann – then a complete stranger – on Dec. 16, 2015. With the introduction of Waldmann’s bone marrow, Voeltz’s body is now generating healthy red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells.
The other City of Hope patients who will join Voeltz on the float include:
• Kaysen Camat-Toki, 14, from Las Vegas Nevada, who was 11 years old when he was diagnosed with a rare type of bone cancer, telangiectatic osteosarcoma – probably the hardest osteosarcoma subtype to treat. His parents drove 237 miles to City of Hope so that a specialist could remove his cancer and insert an innovative stainless steel internal prosthesis. City of Hope is the only institution on the West Coast with the expertise and technology capable of uniformly lengthening a growing child’s limb with a specialized magnet. His right femur has been lengthened about a handful of times. This innovative prothesis ensures that Kaysen doesn’t have to go in for regularly scheduled surgeries after the initial operation, thus reducing the risk of infection and negative outcomes. Kaysen, who used to play baseball, is learning to enjoy low-impact sports such as bowling.
• Jeff Carpenter, 59, from South Pasadena, who was 56 years old when he was given a grim diagnosis: lung cancer that had spread to his brain. Carpenter was astonished because he had never smoked a day in his life, but the condition explained his uncharacteristic panic attacks, erratic behavior, blurred vision and bouts of nonsensical speech. In the emergency room, he was told he had three to six months to live. As a man who had devoted 11 years to building his own airplane, Carpenter knows what it means to be resilient and dream big. He came to City of Hope, underwent intricate brain surgery, radiation therapy and leading-edge targeted therapy that eliminated all tumors in his lungs and brain. Now 59 with no evidence of disease, Carpenter and his family are working on turning a 10-year-old dream into reality: They have purchased land overlooking the eastern Sierra mountains and are working on plans to build a cabin there.
• Ivan Garcia-Burgos, 27, of Mesa, Arizona, who was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer that hinders the body’s ability to fight infection. A donor from Tampa, Florida, was identified, Carlos Vallejo. Garcia-Burgos endured high doses of chemotherapy to prepare his body for a stem cell transplant. He lost 50 pounds over the course of his treatment and said, “There were times that I wanted to call it quits.” But he remembered all he still had to live for and decided to fight. He is now cancer-free and has created a nonprofit called Ivan’s Choice Leukemia Foundation to pay it forward and give families insight so that they’re more emotionally prepared to handle the disease and treatment.
• Stacy Kimmel, 51, of Pasadena who was 38 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. The tumor was 3 millimeters wide, but as a mother of a 3-year-old, Kimmel decided to get aggressive treatment. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy to reduce the risk of recurrence. The estrogen-positive cancer proved stubborn and returned five other times, eventually becoming HER-2 positive, a hard-to-beat cancer mutation that could spread quickly. In total, Kimmel has been diagnosed with breast cancer six times, and she’s beaten it every time. Despite cancer, her singular focus is living a life filled with memorable moments. Kimmel is unwilling to give up hope that she will survive, thrive and continue making memories with family and friends.
• Annie Tighe, 18, of Durham, North Carolina, was 4 years old and living in Pasadena when she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, an autoimmune disease where the body stops producing enough new blood cells, causing fatigue, a higher risk of infections and uncontrolled bleeding. She received a bone marrow transplant at City of Hope using the umbilical cord blood that her parents had saved and stored. Tighe was free of the disease for 18 months before she relapsed in 2007. That’s when her parents discovered the cause of her illness: A termite pesticide called chlordane that had been banned in 1988 was outgassing from the soil under her house to sicken her. With no more cord blood, her parents tried many different treatments, including two rounds of immunosuppressive therapy. Eventually, when Tighe was 12, she returned to City of Hope for a second bone marrow transplant. This time they used donated stem cells from a young man in Germany. She is now cured (and living in a different house) but estimates that about 15% of her childhood was spent in hospitals and doctor’s offices. She has had over 130 transfusions and over 600 blood draws.
• Cierra Danielle Jackson, 31, of North Hollywood, an up-and-coming actress and former beauty queen was born with sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder that afflicts some 100,000 Americans, 80% of whom are African American like her. Very few sickle cell patients live past 30, and much of their time is spent coping with one pain emergency after another. By the time Jackson was in high school, she “was always in the hospital.” The condition gave her jaundice. “Kids in school called me the ‘green-eyed gremlin,’” she said. But she waited until she earned a bachelor’s degree before she sought a bone marrow transplant that could “cure” her. She came to City of Hope because it has performed the largest number of transplants for sickle cell patients in the West. A U.K. donor with a 99.9% match was found, and the transplant was performed to great success. Jackson is now considered “cured.”
• Donna McNutt, 58 of Laguna Beach, was 54 years old when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer that forms in plasma cells of the immune system. Her doctor in an Orange County facility said she could buy her five years. McNutt didn’t believe in expiration dates and decided to come to City of Hope because of a renowned blood cancer specialist. McNutt received a lifesaving stem cell transplant and now has her cancer at bay. She fell out of remission in November 2018, but her physician has kept her disease under control. McNutt is able to make memories with her husband and three children. “I believe my relationships are the best they’ve ever been because I don’t wait until tomorrow to say something that I need to say today,” she said.