The Gift of Going Home for the Holidays

By Sarah Garcia - December 21, 2023

When you ask Miriam Gray what home is like, she is stuck for words except “warm and inviting.” It makes you wonder about the color of the walls and the fabric of the couch that she sits on, how it smells on Christmas morning, and the objects that adorn the walls and fireplace mantel. Maybe it’s that she and her husband, Gary, have been away from home for five months now, or maybe it’s just that the Grays don’t define home as a physical place and the things within it.

Home is their family: one daughter, one son, one grandson and four granddaughters including Adrianna, Miriam’s lifesaving stem cell donor.

Ten years ago, Miriam was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a disease that occurs when blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become damaged. Eventually, her MDS transformed into acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a very aggressive type of blood cancer.

She was being treated in Tallahassee, but nothing was working. Her doctors encouraged her to seek out clinical trial options. “I did some research and found that Moffitt was really on the leading edge of leukemia research.”

Dr. Hany Elmariah, Department of Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Immunotherapy
Dr. Hany Elmariah, Department of Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Immunotherapy

In June 2023, she found a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center led by Dr. Hany Elmariah in the Department of Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Immunotherapy. “Miriam enrolled on a trial using a CD8-depleted donor lymphocyte infusion, which is a novel therapy using filtered immune cells from another person to help fight the cancer,” Elmariah said.

Through her treatment, she achieved complete remission. The next step was to perform a bone marrow transplant to prevent the leukemia from returning. Miriam’s son, daughter and two eligible grandchildren were tested. Both granddaughters were a match, and 21-year-old Adrianna was chosen to be her donor.

Adrianna donates stem cells at Moffitt Cancer Center
Gray’s granddaughter Adrianna was her donor for both her bone marrow transplant and gamma delta T cell trial.

The transplant was a success, but Elmariah was not stopping there.

“We enrolled her in another clinical trial led by Dr. Nelli Bejanyan, where she received an infusion of special immune cells called gamma delta T cells obtained from her granddaughter’s blood,” he said. “These are intended to kill any small bits of remaining leukemia and hopefully increase the chance the leukemia is permanently cured.” 

Throughout treatment, Miriam spent over two full months inpatient at Moffitt, and when not at Moffitt, had to remain nearby for follow-up visits and close monitoring. The Grays stayed at the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Hope Lodge next to Moffitt and have not been home since June.

Miriam’s special Christmas Eve dinner always includes Greek salad and standing rib roast.
Miriam’s special Christmas Eve dinner always includes Greek salad and standing rib roast.

This week, Miriam was cleared to return home just in time for Christmas.

In a small town called Medart, Florida, 30 minutes southwest of Tallahassee, “home” is waiting for the Grays with open arms. Each of their two adult children built houses on their family property, or compound, as they call it.

It’s where they have watched their five grandchildren grow. Where Grandma always has an open door and can expect a loving visitor at any moment. It’s where she will bake cookies with her grandchildren and host a big, festive Christmas Eve dinner. “It’s always spent at my house,” she said, “with the special meal we always have — Greek salad and standing rib roast.” It’s where they will play games, exchange gifts and laugh over their White Elephant gag gifts. A house is not a home for the Grays — not their big wraparound porch, not even the flowers and plants they tend to like babies — it is the people who live in it and the memories they make there together.

For Elmariah, Miriam’s story is an inspiration. “She fought hard and boldly enrolled on two unique, early phase clinical trials,” he said. “She has come out in remission and feeling great, and hopefully this will be the first of many Christmases she can spend cancer free with her family!”

The Grays and their family outside of the hope lodge, Thanksgiving 2023
The entire family came to visit the Grays at the Hope Lodge for Thanksgiving.

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