acc rotz gifts with syeta manuel

Candice Cooper, MHA, Dolan A. Kneafsey, MSS, donor Christopher Rotz, and patient Syeta Manuel after a teary surprise.

Since the passing of Christopher Rotz’s wife, Kathleen, in 2014 from non-small cell lung cancer, Rotz has been keeping her legacy alive by fueling the research of the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC). For three years, the Kathleen M. Rotz Lung Cancer Research Fund has held an annual 5K run and walk, and this year, participants raised over $45,000 to support a clinical trial led by Steven M. Albelda, MD, associate chief and director of Lung Research in Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine.

Over the holidays, the Rotz family’s efforts also touched patients directly as they worked to relieve the stresses of the season and bring hope and happiness to patients being treated at the ACC at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. For ACC patients who struggle with food, financial, and housing insecurity, an empty gas tank can mean a missed chemotherapy appointment, and buying gifts during the holidays can’t always be a priority. That’s where Rotz, his children — Megan, Kaitlan, and Christopher Jr. — and their community of generous donors came in.

Through the 2nd Annual “Believe in the Magic of Santa” gift distribution program, underserved patients and their families were “adopted” and asked to provide wish lists in order to spread the spirit of the season, ease financial burdens, and restore a sense of normalcy during what can be a highly emotional time of year. Shortly before Christmas, 14 patients were surprised with piles of wrapped gifts, toys, and clothing from their wish lists — and even bikes for their children!

acc rotz gifts syeta and randi manuel

Syeta Manuel and her daughter, Randi, (and her new doll!) enjoy their whirlwind adventure at the American Girl Place.

Gift cards were also distributed to help with essential grocery, pharmacy, and transportation needs. As patients were brought back to the exam rooms one-by-one, the ACC staff and the Rotz family members were fit to burst with anticipation, and without fail, the sight of the bright red and green tubs overflowing with gifts sparked a shriek of surprise, a hearty laugh, or a flood of joyous tears each time. Hugs abounded, and it proved to be a very special day for everyone.

Though every patient received personalized gifts, one received a particularly special experience. When asked what would help to make the holiday season easier for her family, Syeta Manuel maintained that all she needed were thoughts and prayers for her recovery. Eventually, after insisting that she give him some sort of hint, Dolan A. Kneafsey, MSS, a social worker for Hematology/ Oncology at the ACC at PPMC, was able to wear down her resolve. She revealed that her nine-year old daughter, Randi, really wanted an American Girl doll — a line of dolls that celebrates young girls’ talents and uniqueness, and that can be made to look just like themselves. While the team was happy they had a starting point, one doll simply wasn’t enough in Rotz’s opinion. He wanted to provide Syeta and Randi with a memorable experience that they could cherish long after the holidays passed.

syeta and randi manuel

Syeta and Randi return for the main “Believe in the Magic of Santa” distribution day and are surprised with even more gifts.

With the help of Candice Cooper, MHA, senior practice manager for Hematology/Oncology for the ACC at PPMC, and the ACC staff, Rotz was able to set up a surprise overnight mother-daughter trip to New York City. A few days before the main gift distribution, the team broke the news. A completely overwhelmed Syeta suddenly found herself being shuffled to a limousine to pick up a packed bag from home and her shocked daughter from school, and all the while, she kept repeating how grateful she was.

Syeta and Randi began their trip with a visit to the American Girl Place in Rockefeller Center. Randi was able to create a customized doll — and get her own hair braided to match! — and they enjoyed an afternoon tea. They also saw a performance of the Radio City Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” show, stopped for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, and had a good night’s rest at a hotel after their whirlwind adventure. When they returned to PA, they were met with even more gifts from the foundation, including a pair of picture frames, complete with photos of their memorable and truly magical trip.

“It was like pulling teeth with Syeta to get her to tell us anything she wanted! She’s just that type of person — even though she’s in a time of need herself, she is always thinking of others and putting them first,” Kneafsey said. “That’s what made this escape, this break, so special.”

“I also think it’s important to recognize that these gifts weren’t provided by one wealthy donor. This was all possible because regular people came together to change people’s lives — to give them some breathing room as they face these challenges,” he continued. “I can’t say enough good things about Chris [Rotz] and his children. Their impact can’t be overstated, and they are living, breathing, awesome reminders of Kathleen. It’s been such an honor and a privilege to work with them; our clinic couldn’t do this without them.”

Check back soon for more photos from the “Believe in the Magic of Santa” gift distribution!