05.30.19

An International Affair: One Doctor Shares His Story of Helping Cellular Therapy Doctors Around the World

Growing up, Damiano Rondelli didn’t want to be a doctor.

In fact, he hated the sight of blood. Born in Italy, Rondelli had other plans—he wanted to be an ambassador, traveling the world to try and fix problems that affected people of all walks of life.

“I wanted to talk to people and work together,” he said. “The world was my country.”

What he didn’t know then was that in his own way he would become an ambassador to the world. Rondelli is the division chief of hematology/oncology and the director of BMT at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. He is also the chair of  ASTCT’s Committee on International Affairs, which was established this year to foster relationships among global BMT and cellular therapy groups.

The committee was formed to address a variety of topics, such as joint partnerships with international BMT societies, scholarships for international trainees, development of international education and promotion of international scholarly work.

Rondelli is joined on the committee by some of the top minds in BMT: Mary Flowers, MD, from Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center; John DiPersio, MD, from Washington University School of Medicine; Daniel Weisdorf, MD, from University of Minnesota; Jeff Szer, MD, of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre & Royal Melbourne Hospital; Nelson Chao, MD, of Duke University Medical Center; and Shakila Khan, MD, of Mayo Clinic.

At the 2019 TCT Meetings of ASTCT and CIBMTR, seven abstracts were submitted exploring projects and programs implemented in low- to middle-income countries. These are places where BMT and cellular therapy centers are desperately needed, but due to barriers—including cost and politics—they’re unable to provide care for everyone.

“Is it needed? Yes,” Rondelli said. “Is it done? No.”

Rondelli came to the committee thanks to his work establishing BMT centers in some of the poorest countries in the world. Always passionate about global issues, his first foray into developing countries was in in 2010. Rondelli became close to a fellow at the UIC College of Medicine from Nepal. The fellow asked Rondelli whether he’d be interested in coming to Nepal and giving a few lectures. He accepted.

But when he arrived, he realized just how little Nepal had in terms of health care. He and the fellow worked to get a transplant center operating there, and despite facing huge hurdles (including opposition from other doctors in the country) they managed to open up a BMT center in a Kathmandu public hospital.

From there, he was hooked. He started traveling around the world—to India, Cuba, Bolivia, Nigeria, Ukraine—in hopes of helping doctors there dedicated to helping their patients.

“Imagine if you made what’s in the U.S. available to doctors in Nigeria,” he said. “How many patients with sickle cell disease could you save? It sounds like a no brainer, but there are so many different barriers. My goal with the society is to connect with people who have the same mission and spirit. To grow the culture, and grow awareness and impact these therapies can have. It will make the society and the world better.”

He said it starts by getting doctors abroad proper training at low costs. Many doctors in these developing countries make little money, and in the case of Cuba less than two dollars a day, meaning international travel is seemingly impossible. He said access to journals is important too, as is presenting research at international conferences.

ASTCT is hoping to develop a program sponsoring visiting scholars from developing countries. The Committee on International Affairs is also actively seeking papers from doctors abroad. International relations is important to not just the committee, but also to many of the membership, Rondelli said. Many society members were born in other countries—including Rondelli—and understand the desire to pay it forward.

By utilizing the resources of ASTCT—and by raising awareness among its members—Rondelli hopes to organize efforts to establish BMT and cellular transplantation centers worldwide.

“We have a sense of responsibility to go back and help,” he said. “I don’t think it’s difficult to promote this concept—a lot of people are already doing it. We want to make sure it’s done in the most effective way.”

Rondelli said his passion for helping others globally is what drives him forward in life. He hopes one day doctors around the world will have access to life-saving medicines and techniques that can improve quality of life for everyone.

He said he’s thankful he got over his fear of blood as a child, as being a BMT doctor has led him to some of the richest experiences in his life.

“My life is based on a simple principle: The dignity of any human being is the most sacred thing, no matter who and where they are,” Rondelli said. “Anything less is not appealing to me.”

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