After Kathleen Rotz passed away from non-small cell lung cancer in 2014, her husband Chris and children, Megan, Kaitlan, and Christopher Jr., made a commitment to spread her “love, strength, courage, and passion” by establishing the Kathleen M. Rotz Lung Cancer Research Fund. They set their sights on finding a cure and began fueling the research of Evan W. Alley, MD, PhD, chief of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center (PPMC), and Steven M. Albelda, MD, vice chief and director or Lung Research in Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, in earnest — but they didn’t forget those still battling the daily challenges of lung cancer.
In partnership with the Abramson Cancer Center at PPMC and a generous community of donors, the Rotzes organized an annual “Believe in the Magic of Santa” gift distribution event to provide underserved patients with the means to enjoy the holidays, a restored sense of normalcy, and an opportunity to shift their focus away from cancer and toward celebrating the season with their families.
“Knowing what these patients and families are living through, I thought the best gift we could give was to fulfill their needs and wishes during this special time of year,” Chris Rotz said. “Our hope is to provide happiness and some level of escape from their daily battle. Be it for five minutes, five hours, or five days, my wish is that this experience allows patients to stop thinking about scans or chemo or radiation, and to just be worry-free and able to fully enjoy their holiday traditions with their loved ones.”
The Rotzes teamed up with Hematology/Oncology social worker Dolan Kneafsey, MSS, and Penn Social Work graduate student Kayla Hilliard to identify lung cancer patients and families in need of community support. For many patients — and especially patients who struggle with food, housing, or income insecurity — expenses like transportation to appointments and childcare during treatments, plus worries about whether medications and groceries will fit into the budget can all create additional financial stress that only intensifies over the holidays. They put out a call to community members and corporations for donations, and the response was overwhelming. One woman even mentioned that her seven- and five-year old sons had both saved their allowance money so they could participate. Donors “adopted” the families and purchased items from their wish lists, as well as gift cards to assist with grocery, gas, and pharmacy purchases well after the holiday season had passed.
“It’s been incredible to watch how much it has grown. We started with four families, and the presents fit into a couple of SUVs. This year, we had more donors than ever, served 18 families, and filled a large U-HAUL,” Kneafsey said. “It’s really exciting to take part in something so special, and I think it’s important to realize that the bulk of the gifts were from ‘regular’ people — families and friends who came together and took special care to buy patients exactly what they were hoping for this year and more.”
“And more” is an understatement. Each family received dozens of personalized, beautifully wrapped gifts, some of which couldn’t be contained in the festive red and green tubs, such as a shiny blue tricycle and a Barbie Dreamhouse. Throughout distribution day, patients and their families were shepherded back to the exam rooms by excited ACC staff members, including Alex Astudillo, Nina Benedick, Megan Holden, Michael Galantino, and Elizabeth Olanrewaju. Some patients had met the Rotzes before and greeted them like old friends, but even if they had an idea of what was in store, everyone was overwhelmed by the outpouring of compassion and generosity, and many hugs, handshakes, and tissues were exchanged.
Deborah — a patient who actually arrived with small presents of her own to hand out to ACC staff — was overcome with emotion when she opened her gift box and found a whopping $1,000 worth of gift cards and hugged every staff member, volunteer, and Presby Bulletin editor in the vicinity. A patient named Juan was already misty-eyed as he rounded the corner and walked down the hallway. As he hugged Rotz through tears, he said, “It’s really special because I have kids, and I want them to be happy. I appreciate everything that you’re doing for us. But also for me, personally — my family is really far from here, and everybody has treated me and cared for me in a way that feels like family. It’s the best present. It's filling that gap inside me. Honestly, I can't ask for more.” Even a patient who couldn’t make it on the day of the event was included; her family’s gifts were delivered the day before, and she was overwhelmed by the sight of three new bikes. (Read more about Tracy’s experience in System News.)
“We are humbled to be a partner with Dolan and the ACC, and we’re ecstatic about the incredible support we continue to receive from every generous donor and participant. It has been so gratifying to be part of the Penn family and the ACC team and to see the growth of this from an idea to a meaningful reality,” Rotz said. “There is so much emotion behind this event — from the donors, who spend time making each wish list item extra special, to the patients who express such genuine surprise, gratitude, and kindness, to the doctors, nurses, and staff involved who are so invested in their patients’ needs (medical and otherwise) and well-being. This is beyond a ‘feel-good’ story; it’s a contagious story that continues to spread to touch those most in need of community support and hope.”