At 79, Robert Pannell wasn’t going to let bone marrow disease end his life or his golf game. So when his health insurer refused to pay for a bone marrow transplant, he fought back and won.
Today, Pannell of Mesa — now 82 — is one of the state’s oldest bone marrow transplant recipients and a success story who has opened the door to an increasing number of people in their 60s and 70s getting the life-extending procedure.
"We didn’t used to transplant these people," said Dr. Jeffery Schriber, medical director of the City of Hope bone marrow transplantation program at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, Phoenix, and Pannell’s physician. "Now we’re realizing we don’t have to limit the most effective treatment."
Since Pannell’s transplant in 2001, the number of people 60 and older receiving bone marrow transplants at the City of Hope program has climbed from seven or eight a year to 12 so far this year. In the last year, a 70-year-old received the treatment, and several more in their 70s are considering the procedure.
Bone marrow transplants can help extend the lives of otherwise healthy people with conditions such as Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma, said Schriber.
Seniors today receiving bone marrow transplants in the Valley have Pannell to thank, along with better treatments and a large body of research showing successful outcomes in older patients, Schriber said.
Pannell had multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the plasma cells, which typically appears in people over 60. Doctors recommended that he receive an autologous bone marrow transplant, in which Pannell would provide his own blood stem cells before his transplant. Once chemotherapy destroyed the cancer cells and the stem cells in his bone marrow, Pannell would have his stem cells transplanted to restore blood cell production.
In early 2001, Pannell’s Medicare health maintenance organization, PacifiCare SecureHorizons, denied his request for a bone marrow transplant because Medicare limited the procedure to people younger than 78. Pannell was 79 at the time.
"It’s disheartening when you get a letter saying you’re too old," said Schriber, who lost his appeals. "The more they said it, the madder I got. It’s wrong. It should be based on a doctor’s recommendation and your individual health."
Pannell wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asking for help. Pannell said his doctors told him he had the body of a 50-year-old. Pannell attributes his good health to years of exercise, poleclimbing while working for a telephone company and golfing three days a week.
Four days before his case was to be heard, PacifiCare agreed to cover the transplant, which began in June 2001 with the gathering of stem cells. The procedure wasn’t easy, resulting in Pannell spending 13 days in the hospital with a depleted immune system, no appetite, no hair, and mouth sores.
But nearly three years later, Pannell is again healthy, with regular blood tests showing no return of the cancer. The tall, lean man with white hair still golfs three days a week, and said he is glad he’s become a role model for other seniors considering a bone marrow transplant.