Laker For A Day

Laker for a Day: Kenny Thomas

November 29, 2017

When he was 8 years old, Kenny Thomas lost a significant amount of weight, developed a constant cough and struggled sleeping. His family took him to the emergency department searching for an answer, which came following an X-ray of Kenny's chest.

"The doctor, when he came back, he had a very different look on his face. That's when he told us that it was cancer, that he had a mass in his chest," says Kenny's mother, Lori. "I literally fell on the floor and I screamed and I started crying. One of the male nurses came in and lifted me off the ground, and he said, 'Come on. We're going to fight this.'"

Kenny has come back stronger. He was honored as the UCLA Health Laker for a Day on Nov. 29, when he watched his hometown team take the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors into overtime.

Back on Sept. 9, 2012, Kenny's life changed forever. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma after the X-ray revealed stage 3 cancer in his chest.

"I asked (my mom) if I could die from cancer. She said, 'People have in the past, but you're strong so you won't. We're going to fight this together,'" Kenny recalls.

He underwent countless procedures, numerous hospital stays and chemotherapy three times a week for eight months.

"Seeing him struggle with the chemo, seeing him have many sleepless nights, it was tough," says his father, Kenneth. "But he hung in there and he fought a good fight."

After three years of treatment, Kenny's cancer went into remission. Now Kenny can focus on his favorite things in life: family, friends and basketball. He was able to do all three during his Laker for a Day experience, receiving a behind-the-scenes tour of Staples Center and watching warmups from the floor with his parents and physician, Theodore Moore, Chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at UCLA.

Kenny, who has been a Lakers fan as long as he can remember, hopes his Laker for a Day platform will help raise awareness about pediatric cancer research.

"It's great and it's an honor," Kenny says.

For more information about pediatric cancer treatment, visit uclahealth.org/mattel/pediatric-hematology-oncology.


Laker for a Day: Malisa

November 5, 2017

Malisa was at the movies, just a few weeks away from giving birth to her first child, when she felt a sudden pain in her chest. She sought an evaluation from a cardiologist, who told her she had a life-threatening tear in her aorta. Malisa, who lives about 80 miles from Los Angeles, was immediately airlifted to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

"It was moments like that you knew just how serious it was," she says. "They're staring at you like, 'No, we can't wait.'"

Malisa has been on quite the journey since. She was honored as the UCLA Health Laker for a Day on Nov. 5, shining a light on heart health as she watched the Lakers notch a 107-102 win over the Memphis Grizzlies at the first NBA game she ever attended.

There have been many firsts for Malisa this year.

After her diagnosis, she was told doctors at UCLA would perform an emergency cesarean section to save the baby, then immediately start heart surgery. Her husband, Josh, a master sergeant in the Air Force, was on assignment in South Korea and quickly made plans to travel back to California. They spoke briefly by phone as she was wheeled in a gurney to the helicopter.

Malisa arrived at the hospital to find a UCLA team of 23 specialists assembled, including heart surgeons, obstetricians, anesthesiologists, neonatologists, nurses, a perfusionist and experts from respiratory therapy and neurophysiology.

"The only thing I know is that all the doctors standing around me seemed so sure about everything that I wasn't actually that worried about the surgery," she says.

Following the procedures, Josh was there to greet her – and so was their newborn son, Connor.

"As soon as they put him in my arms, I cried. He's my miracle baby," she says. "As my husband says, he's also my hero because I don't know how fast I would have gone to the emergency room if I wasn't pregnant."

Malisa was able to celebrate her recovery and bring attention to the importance of seeking medical care during her Laker for a Day experience. Malisa and a friend received a behind-the-scenes tour of Staples Center, eating dinner in the Chairman's Lounge and watching warm-ups on the floor. She also received a surprise video recorded by her husband in South Korea that was shown throughout the arena during a break in the game, drawing applause from fans.

"Being Laker for a Day gets your story out so people don't wait," she says. "If I wasn't pregnant, I might have waited a few days. When it comes to your heart and your chest, it's so important to seek help."

For more information about UCLA Health, visit uclahealth.org.


Laker for a Day: Lila Javan

October 25, 2017

Nearly five years after her initial diagnosis, Lila Javan thought her cancer was long gone. She had everything but her plane ticket booked for a dream climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro when results from a routine blood draw put plans of scaling Africa's highest peak on hold.

"Immediately my heart sank because I knew that the cancer was back," Lila says. "I decided, 'OK, my trip is not canceled. It's just merely postponed.'"

Lila has literally been climbing back ever since, celebrating another milestone in her recovery as the UCLA Health Laker for a Day on Oct. 25, when she watched the Lakers pull off a 102-99 overtime win over the Washington Wizards at Staples Center.

Lila, who was first diagnosed with a blood cancer in 2010, refocused on her goal when a friend gave her a poster that showed Mt. Kilimanjaro through the frame of a window. Lila hung the image in her hospital room, grabbing every visitor's attention.

Dr. Sarah Larson, her oncologist at UCLA, was so inspired by Lila's strength and resilience during treatment that she joined Lila's group of friends on the journey up Kilimanjaro in January 2017. Lila, a cinematographer, documented their ascent.

"When Lila relapsed and I would go into her hospital room, seeing those pictures of Kilimanjaro and it looking so breathtaking, but then now being here, I think that's part of why it feels surreal," Dr. Larson told the camera crew atop the mountain. "Just to see where we are compared to May of 2014, again, it just doesn't feel real."

Lila says climbing Kilimanjaro exceeded her expectations and drew parallels with her cancer journey.

"If you go too quickly, you're going to have trouble climitazing and you're going to have to go down the mountain," she says. "And that really is an analogy to cancer and cancer recovery. You can't push yourself beyond your daily limit, but if you keep putting one step in front of the other and just having the faith that that will get you there, you'll be at 19,341 feet before you know it."

Dr. Larson also accompanied Lila during her Laker for a Day experience. Lila received a behind-the-scenes look of the game and even sat a few seats away from former soccer star David Beckham, which had her feeling star struck.

"I'm so proud to be a Laker for a Day," Lila says, "and maybe help inspire people to find mountains that they can climb."

For more information about UCLA Health, visit uclahealth.org.


Laker for a Day: Jonathan Koch

June 8, 2017

Jonathan Koch stood on the hardwood floor at Staples Center, swishing shots at the same basket where Laker legends have delivered many awe-inspiring performances.

For Jonathan, an entertainment executive who received a hand transplant at UCLA six months earlier, this was a made-for-TV moment even he couldn't script.

Just two years earlier, a sudden illness led to the destruction of tissue in Jonathan's feet and hands, threatening to take his limbs – and his life.

"I got a text that basically said, 'Call me. Very serious,'" recalls his wife, Jennifer. "I was told that he had a 90 percent chance of dying. He had multiple organ failures, and from that loss of oxygen going to his hands and feet, which in essence made his hands and feet die."

Following treatment at two out-of-state hospitals and knowing that his left hand would need amputation, Jonathan sought a rare hand transplant at UCLA. He hired a personal trainer and kept himself in peak shape to give himself the best opportunity for a successful recovery, all the while dealing with constant pain.

In October 2016, at age 51, a team of surgeons led by Dr. Kodi Azari, surgical director of the UCLA Hand Transplant Program and a professor of orthopaedic surgery and plastic surgery, performed the operation to replace Jonathan's left hand. The surgery took about 17 hours and required perfect precision to connect his nerves and tendons.

"Functionality came almost in flashes. One second I couldn't do it, and then the next second I could move my thumb. And it would happen like every 10 minutes," Jonathan says.

Jonathan, a husband and father from Los Angeles, has mixed emotions because he knows none of this would have been possible without the incredible gift of the donor and their family members who agreed to make the hand available for transplantation. He remains forever grateful for the life-changing donation.

As with any organ transplant, Jonathan must now take immunosuppressant medications to help prevent his body from rejecting the new hand. He also is working with occupational therapists at UCLA to improve his movement and muscle memory. Already, Jonathan has used his new hand to hold a jump rope, unscrew a bottle top and swing a tennis racquet.

Jonathan's most impressive performance since the transplant might have come before the Lakers game against Grizzlies on April 2. That's when Jonathan showed off his healthy shooting stroke as the UCLA Health Laker for a Day. He participated in the Jr. Lakers Shooting Contest, helping a lucky young fan win a scholarship to the camp this summer.

"Just watching him with his first shot swish a basket really means the world to me," says Dr. Azari, who joined Jonathan and his friends at the game.

Even for someone who has helped bring many reality shows to TV, Jonathan's journey has been quite the Hollywood story – and he looks forward to sharing it more in hopes of inspiring others.

"Being Laker for the Day means the world to me," he says. "Because it means the world has the opportunity not only to experience what's possible in this medical miracle, but also what's possible within themselves to do whatever it is to do what they set out to do."


Laker for a Day: Jamil Newirth

May 11, 2017

Jamil Newirth was told he had 17 months to live. That was five years ago.

Today, thanks to doctors at the UCLA Brain Tumor Center, Jamil is healthy and taking in all that life has to offer – including attending a Lakers game. With the partnership between the Lakers and UCLA Health, Jamil enjoyed a behind-the-scenes experience as the UCLA Health Laker for a Day on March 26th at STAPLES Center.

It has been quite a journey for Jamil, a long-time Laker fan who lives in Hawaii and travels frequently to receive care at UCLA. He started experiencing headaches and nausea in May 2012. He went to the emergency room and doctors diagnosed him with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor, telling him he might have little time left to live.

Jamil received radiation treatment for three months and chemotherapy for a year before undergoing successful surgery at the hands of Dr. Linda M. Liauat UCLA. "After the brain tumor surgery when I saw my MRI, my family and I were very relieved, kind of joy and hope at the same time," Jamil says.

Since his surgery, Jamil has passed the bar exam to become a lawyer and is able to partake in one of his favorite Hawaiian activities: surfing. His positive outlook and zest for life was certainly on display during his game-day experience, which included taking pictures with the Laker girls and watching pregame warmups courtside.

For more information about UCLA Health services, visit uclahealth.org


Laker for a Day: Julian White

May 3, 2017

Julian White says he has never let cancer stop him from doing anything. So, as a lifelong Lakers fan, of course nothing would prevent him from enjoying a behind-the-scenes game experience as the UCLA Health Laker for a Day.

Doctors diagnosed Julian with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer, in January 2016. He has been receiving treatment at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital ever since, undergoing chemotherapy, blood and platelet transfusions, diagnostic imaging and other treatment procedures, including spinal taps and bone marrow biopsies.

"It's been a journey," says Julian, now 16.

Julian has been unable to attend school regularly due to a weakened immune system from the treatment. That often means restricting visitors at his home to protect his health. "The toughest thing about it is not being able to really do anything about it and just hoping, hoping, that he does not get discouraged," says his father, Ron White, who joined Julian at the Lakers game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 24th.

Julian attended games as a youngster with his father, so coming back to STAPLES Center was a symbolic way to celebrate the strength and determination he has displayed throughout his recovery. He toured the Chairman's Lounge, met Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss and watched pregame warm-ups courtside before being recognized during a halftime presentation.

Since first coming to UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, Julian and his family have met many members of his interdisciplinary care team, building relationships that no doubt will last beyond his three-year treatment plan. Julian hopes his experience can have a positive impact on others who are facing a similar recovery process.

"Being Laker for a Day means that I have an opportunity to give kids who might have what I have hope," he says. "Or give them someone to look up to, saying, 'Oh, he did it. So I can do it.'"

For more information about UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, visit uclahealth.org/mattel


Laker for a Day: Walter Sanchez

March 10, 2017

In many ways, Walter Sanchez looked like any other father chasing his two young daughters around the court before a recent Lakers game. Except Walter's life started out anything but normal.

Walter was born with only one ventricle in his heart, so instead of two ventricles pumping blood – one to the lungs, another to the body – he has just one to the body. Thanks to doctors at UCLA Health, however, Walter was able to undergo a procedure that allows him to lead a relatively normal life.

"The surgery essentially linked his veins up with his pulmonary arteries," says  Dr. Jamil Aboulhosn, director of the UCLA Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program.

Walter enjoys spending time with his two charismatic daughters, 7-year-old Samantha and 8-year-old Danielle, who infuse energy and enthusiasm into his daily activities. That was especially evident during their behind-the-scenes tour of Staples Center, where they were treated to dinner in the Chairman's Lounge and had an opportunity to meet and mingle with Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss before the Valentine's Day game against Sacramento.

"What keeps me going is I have my two daughters," Walter says. "I take care of myself so I can provide for them. As of right now my heart is repaired and, God willing, I won't need a heart transplant."

Dr. Leigh Reardon, director of Transitional Cardiac Care at UCLA, says medical advances developed at UCLA and other research centers now allow people like Walter to recover and enjoy everything that life has to offer – including taking in a Lakers game.

"UCLA was one of the first places in the world to treat adults with congenital heart disease, and we're one of the premier places for adults with congenital heart diseases in the world," Dr. Reardon says. "And because of advances in medicine, we've been able to let people live full and productive lives, have families, exercise and live their dreams."

For more information about UCLA Health, visit uclahealth.org


Laker for a Day: Dawn Dorland Perry

February 27, 2017

Dawn Dorland Perry wanted nothing more than to soothe the suffering of a stranger. Touched by an article she read about living kidney donations, Dawn decided to take action with a selfless and life-saving act of her own.

On June 24, 2015, Dawn donated a kidney to a stranger experiencing renal failure. Hours after her kidney retrieval surgery at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, that stranger — a father in the Los Angeles area — received a second chance at life.

"I realized I had something I didn't need that someone else desperately needed," Dawn says. "And I knew that if I didn't donate my kidney one day, it would probably nag at me my entire life."

The Lakers invited Dawn and Dr. Jeffrey Veale, who performed the surgery at UCLA, to a game against the Detroit Pistons at Staples Center on January 15. They were also treated to a dinner at the Lexus Club followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of Staples Center before the game.

Dawn had hoped all along that a member of her recipient's family would also donate a kidney (that did not match with their loved one) to another stranger. Sure enough, inspired by her extraordinary act of kindness, the recipient's wife donated the gift of life to a young mother in Oregon the same day as Dawn's procedure.

While many are motivated to donate a kidney to a friend or relative in need, Dawn recognized the struggle for strangers is just as real. She had read that wait times in California for a deceased-donor kidney could be excruciatingly long, and she knew that living-donor kidneys tended to last longer after transplant. With advances in medical technology making one of her kidneys safely available to someone who needed it to survive, Dawn refused to wait any longer.

She had just completed a graduate degree and relocated to Los Angeles for her husband's job. Financial stability, a loving spouse and living a short distance from UCLA's campus and hospitals made Dawn's desire to help someone materialize quickly.

"I saw her just after she woke up and the very first thing Dawn told me was, 'I'm really glad I did this,'" says her husband, Chris Perry. "And that blew me away."

Dawn feels happy, healthy and grateful each day to be in a position to give, and she encourages others to do what they can to help someone in need.

"Chances are that in your lifetime you will know someone that has been impacted by renal failure, and you yourself might consider giving your kidney," Dawn says. "And if living donation isn't for you, everyone can help solve the organ shortage by registering to become an organ donor, and you can do that today."


Laker for a Day: Sarai Sanchez

November 30, 2016

Lakers fans, meet Sarai Sanchez: A brave and fun-loving 15-year-old who has spent a lifetime battling the complications of a spina bifida diagnosis, including kidney disease. Sarai underwent a life-saving kidney transplant in June of 2015 at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA – and her dad was her donor.

Sarai is a passionate basketball fan, and even spent the night of her transplant watching the NBA playoffs with her father as they awaited their surgeries at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Sarai arrived early for November 20's Lakers vs. Bulls game to watch some of her favorite Lakers warm up at Staples Center. After a tour of the facility, Sarai and her family were invited to have an exclusive dinner in STAPLES Center. And to top it all off, Sarai was able to enjoy the game courtside.

"Being a 'Laker for a Day' means so much to me because it's a great opportunity for me to distract my mind and forget about everything I've gone through this past year," Sarai says. "My favorite part of the day was sitting so close to all the action!"