It was about two and a half hours into the Parkland bone marrow drive Saturday that former teacher John Ritter received what he would call a “transfusion of hope.”
It wasn’t that the drive found a match for Ritter’s marrow – that kind of information won’t be known for days. Rather, it was the story of Joelle Strahler, whose stepfather Don Fatula received a bone marrow transplant in November. Like Ritter, Fatula has a rare form of leukemia.
“He’s doing very well,” said Strahler of Cetronia, who was at the bone marrow drive and Parkland’s Festival of the Arts at the high school with her husband Scott and son Chase. It’s still an uphill battle for her stepfather because he has to be cancer-free for a few years to be considered cured, but it has changed their outlook, Joelle said.
“When he was diagnosed, he was given a 15 percent chance of survival,” Scott Strahler said. “Never give up hope because you never know.”
Saturday’s event, organized by the Parkland Education Association, was all about hope for Ritter. He attended the daylong drive, mostly wearing a surgical mask and carrying a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer to avoid germs that could land him in the hospital.
“Without a transplant, I don’t stand much of a chance,” Ritter said. Before he was diagnosed in 2008, “I didn’t have the awareness that this was so important to so many people,” he said.
All together the drive registered 230 people as potential bone marrow donors and raised $3,496 for DKMS, the bone marrow donor center, according to organizer Mike Messerschmidt, who teaches civics at Orefield Middle School. Volunteers explained to potential donors how bone marrow transplants work and possible side effects while other volunteers took swabs of the inside of their cheeks to send to the registry.
Although it’s unlikely that one of those 230 people will be a match for Ritter, expanding the bone marrow registry improves the chances of a match for everyone who needs such a donation. Ritter’s son Mike found out just recently that he might be a match for someone in need.
Ritter’s sons, Seth, Mike and Zacchary, came for the drive. All Parkland grads, Seth is in his last year of residency in emergency medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Mike is a photographer in Boston and Zacchary is a doctoral student in political science at Georgetown University.
Saturday was also a series of reunions for Ritter, who said it was great to see former students, including some he had back in the early 1980s.
Christine Gieringer of Schnecksville, was a student of Ritter’s in 1990. She stopped by Saturday even though she wasn’t allowed to donate because she is battling breast cancer. As an English teacher, Ritter ran a creative writing program after school that Gieringer attended for three years. “He was one of my absolute favorite teachers,” she said.
Candace Brobst, a Parkland English teacher volunteering at the drive, said it was Ritter’s help that got her through her early years at Parkland. “John was my mentor since I started teaching 20 years ago,” she said. “I wouldn’t be teaching if it wasn’t for him.”
Those kind of testimonials had great medicinal value for Ritter, who got a kick out of hearing former students quote back to him some of his words of wisdom in classrooms long ago. “It’s a recognition that things you might have done 30 years ago mattered,” he said.