“We Are Here to Celebrate Our Lives…Knowing That Every Second Counts”

Thirty former and current Memorial Sloan Kettering pediatric cancer patients rejoiced in turning their illness into strength at a special high school graduation ceremony.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Pediatric Convocation Ceremony
Dominick Sarappa with Paul Meyers, Vice Chairman, Department of Pediatrics

Pediatric convocation is a tradition in Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Department of Pediatrics that recognizes the achievements of current and former patients who have earned their high school or high school equivalency diplomas despite the challenges of having been treated for cancer.

On June 12, 30 young men and women attended the eighth annual ceremony, along with their families, friends, and the medical staff and teachers who saw them through their journeys.

“One of the things we stress from the first day these children come here is that we believe we are going to restore them to health and normalcy,” said pediatric oncologist Paul A. Meyers, Vice Chair of the Department of Pediatrics. “So when they do go back to school, they haven’t lost a step.”

Each year two students are selected to give convocation speeches. One of this year’s chosen students — Dominick Sarappa, who had a bone marrow transplant at Memorial Sloan Kettering — talked about some of the memorable experiences he had with his physician, Farid Boulad, Medical Director of the Pediatric Day Hospital. What follows are excerpts from Dominick’s remarks.

When I first came to Sloan for a consultation with the bone marrow transplant team, I expected super genius doctors that resembled Albert Einstein — people who were smart, serious, and a little socially inept. My expectations were quickly debunked. When my family and I were walking down the hall looking for the consultation room, a nurse approached us asking, “May I help you?” We told her that we had an appointment to meet with a Dr. Boulad.

Nonchalantly, she pointed down the hallway and there he was: a middle-aged man, on the floor, rolling a toy car back and forth. I could see the color in his personality immediately by the red-framed glasses and perky green bowtie that he donned so fashionably. Next to him was a kid, about three years old, his bliss alight on the grin in his face. Taken aback, I was speechless. I could not believe that this was the man that directed the pediatric day hospital in one of the most acclaimed cancer hospitals in the world.

What followed changed my life, and I carry it to this day. Dr. Boulad, in his struggle to rise from the ground, smiled, saying, “The minute you lose touch with your inner child is the minute you lose all hope.” Going for a bone marrow transplant was an appalling thought, but knowing that I would have someone like that overlooking my procedure gave me an inexplicable sense of tranquility, and I was ready.

Shortly after being admitted, I discovered the true characteristics behind the mysterious persona of that doctor. He and I always drove my mother up the wall, and thought it was the greatest. For instance, once when we went to the exam room for my checkup, I sat on the chair and Dr. Boulad exclaimed, “Prepare for the rollercoaster!” Instantly, he jerked the chair to the ceiling, and flung it backwards as far as it went. At this point I clung onto the chair, pretending to fall. My mom had an anxiety attack, screaming, “You’re going to kill him!” I just laughed.

I’ve learned that you have to take chances in life, and that you can’t just wait around for things to happen.

-Dominick Sarappa

Days like this were the reason I was able to prevail through this arduous period in my life. Dr. Boulad’s madness proved to be an unexpectedly essential part of the treatment in that it distracted me from the harsh realities of my illness and allowed me to concentrate on enjoying life.

[Dominick returned to school six months after his bone marrow transplant as a sophomore. Despite missing his entire freshman year, almost three years later he was presiding over his high school graduation as president of the senior class.]

I’ve learned that you have to take chances in life, and that you can’t just wait around for things to happen. We have all been called here today to celebrate the high school graduations of past and present Sloan Kettering patients — but is that the only reason? We have all been given a second chance at life, some of us a third chance or even more, and that’s why we are here today. We are here to celebrate our lives and to look forward to the successful futures that each and every one of us will experience. We triumphed over cancer and ever since then have faced life headstrong, striving to make the best of it, knowing that every second counts.