The Southwest Airlines Hospital Medical Transportation Grant

On October 6, 2002, Michelle Salerno’s life came to a screeching halt. The diagnosis was advanced Hodgkins lymphoma and the prognosis wasn’t good. She was ready to fight, but many of the doctors she saw thought it was a lost cause. In 2003, she came to Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center where she met Dr. Tulio Rodriguez and everything changed.

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“He never gave up on me. There was always a plan B, something else to try,” said Ms. Salerno. “Dr. Rodriguez would always tell me that I’m not dying any sooner than the rest of the people living. Loyola gave me hope for life.”

For Ms. Salerno, that plan B was a series of stem cell transplants, rigorous chemotherapy and clinical trials. They first transplanted Michelle’s stem cells, but they weren’t strong enough to fight the cancer. She needed a donor. Tests revealed her oldest brother Joey to be a perfect match and, in 2004, she had a second transplant.

Still, the cancer was there. Even after seven years of chemotherapy her bone marrow wasn’t healthy and she was receiving blood and platelet transfusions once every two to three weeks.

Loyola suggested Ms. Salerno contact Joey to donate again for a stem cell boost that would repair her bone marrow, but he lived in Bethesda, Maryland. Though she knew Joey would be there in an instant for her, she didn’t want to add a financial burden. Thanks to the generosity of a Southwest Airlines program, Joey was able to fly to Chicago free on a donated ticket. On March 9, 2010, her brother gave her 5 million stem cells and she hasn’t had a transfusion since.

“The best part about the Southwest ticket was that it was an open-ended one. He didn’t have to fly out on any particular day. This gift let us enjoy time together while he was here. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough: Loyola, Southwest, my brother — you truly saved my life,” said Ms. Salerno. The Southwest Airlines Hospital Medical Transportation Grant Program assists families like Ms. Salerno’s throughout the country focus on healing by helping to reduce worries about transportation expenses.

“It’s amazing to see the change in Michelle,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “It is wonderful to see someone who was so sick and suffered for so long having fun and being able to enjoy life again.”

Laura Morell, social worker at the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, has seen the difference that the donated Southwest tickets make in the lives of people struggling with cancer.

“We’ve seen lives changed and uplifted thanks to these tickets,” said Ms. Morell. “We’ve flown family members in as donors or just to be of support. And family support when battling a disease like this makes all the difference.”

For more information about the Southwest Airlines ticket program, contact the Office of Development at development@lumc.edu or (708) 216-3201.

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