Transplant recipient reaches out to other patients

Dec. 22, 2011 – In early 1990, Ron Covilli was an avid runner, logging four to six miles a day, five days a week. Then he came down with a cold that wouldn’t go away and left him barely able to complete his workouts. He gave up running for several months, but when he started back up again, he still felt fatigued.

Ron and Debbie CovilliCovilli, a former health teacher, was worried. His worst fears were confirmed after a visit to a local oncologist, who diagnosed the then 41-year-old St. Charles, Mo., resident with chronic myelogenous leukemia in August 1990. The doctor told him he had only a 10 percent chance of survival without a bone marrow transplant.

“It was pretty devastating,” says Covilli, who at the time had a daughter, Carie, who was in middle school, and a son, Todd, who was in elementary school.

Almost immediately, Covilli and his wife, Debbie, went to work building a game plan for beating his disease. After doing research and consulting with a friend who was a doctor on staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, they made the decision to pursue transplantation at Siteman.

“It was the closest to home and was considered one of the best,” Covilli says. “The key factor was the outstanding nursing care at Barnes. I’m fortunate I had that in my backyard.”

Covilli underwent not just one but two transplant procedures. After his cancer returned, he had a stem-cell transplant at Siteman on Nov. 17, 1998 – the date of his wedding anniversary. Though he experienced some graft-versus-host disease symptoms after the second transplant, they were limited, and he is now cancer-free.

One of the most important things Covilli learned from his experience with cancer is the power of family and friends. His brother Tom donated bone marrow and stem cells for his transplants. His co-workers at a professional sales representation firm supported him throughout his lengthy treatments. His friends brought dinner for his family every night while he was hospitalized. And his nurses became his allies and inspiration.

“Not only were the nurses good, but they were also funny,” Covilli says.

Though his treatment was not easy, Covilli is grateful it allowed him to move forward with his life. After his first transplant, he completed marathons with brothers John and Tom. After his second, he carried the Olympic torch for a quarter-mile when it came through St. Louis in January 2002.

Then there are his grandchildren: Taylor, Logan and Bradley. “I’m blessed to have three grandbabies that made every chemo and radiation treatment I had worth going through,” he says.

Covilli still remembers how scared he felt when he was first diagnosed with cancer. He says he wanted to talk to others who had been through the same experience. That’s why he reaches out to newly diagnosed patients today to share his story and offer advice.

“I try to give back,” he says. “This disease has made me a better person.”