A Ring of Hope

Abdominal Transplant Center inspires nonprofit organization to provide bells to transplant centers around the world for living donors and recipients to ring in celebration of treatment milestones

Reviewed by: Iris Bartov, Martha Palomino, Alexa Spar, Wendy Spar, Nicole Turgeon, MD, FACS; and Aaron Willridge
Written by: Kaylee Fang

Blog social thumb project bell

Sisters Alexa and Isabella Spar serve as Co-Presidents of Project Bell, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to donate “new beginning” bells to cancer centers around the world for patients to ring after completing their course of cancer treatment. Project Bell was founded in 2016 after Alexa and Isabella spent 7 weeks in Boston supporting their mother, Wendy Spar, as she underwent radiation treatment for a brain tumor.

Over 100,000 people ring a bell each year to celebrate significant milestones in their treatment journey. “We managed to keep an optimistic outlook on life, and a big part of that was due to this special bell hanging in the hall of the radiation center,” says Alexa. “The center had a unique tradition, where patients would ring the bell 3 times and recite a poem of their choosing after completing their treatment.”

“This ceremony offered all of us a sense of accomplishment,” continues Alexa. “It created relationships between patients, their families, and staff. This bell inspired us as it consistently reminded us of the end goal,” Alexa explains.

Shortly after their mother rang the bell to mark the end of her treatment, Alexa and Isabella began raising money to donate bells to other cancer centers. They have grown the project exponentially, which has led to donating over 80 bells to cancer centers globally.

Expanding Hope to Transplant Centers

The idea of providing bells to transplant centers and raising awareness for organ donation inspired Alexa to expand Project Bell. The Abdominal Transplant Center, a clinical partnership between Ascension Seton and UT Health Austin, is the first transplant center in the nation to receive a bell from Project Bell, which had previously only gifted bells to cancer and chemotherapy centers.

“We were so touched by the Abdominal Transplant Center’s vision to have bells for the living donors and recipients to ring. I immediately spoke to my family that we should expand Project Bell to include transplant centers. Within days, we spoke with the Center’s team to make this all possible,” Alexa says.

Each of the two brass bells, which are installed at Dell Seton Medical Center, is engraved with a special quote on the plaque that can be recited to honor each individual’s contribution. Living donors ring a bell when they enter the operating room on the day of surgery to celebrate the gift of life they are providing for a loved one or a complete stranger. Transplant recipients ring a bell after the transplant procedure or on their discharge day to signify a new beginning of life. Together, Alexa and Isabella’s goal is to donate bells to cancer and transplant centers globally.

Hopeful Bells

“My hope for this bell is to offer the same positivity and faith for everyone who rings it, as it did for my family and friends. I hope that when you read the words engraved on the plaque and hear the powerful sound of the bell you feel inspired,” Alexa explains.

Besides just being a mom, Wendy is also a pediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist. As a physician, she felt humbled to be on the other side as a patient. She states she couldn’t have done it without her support team.

“The doctors, the other patients in the waiting rooms, the person greeting you at the front desk, the people working in the cafeterias, and all the staff work together to help people like me get through it. What I love most about that bell is the hope it brought. It gave people a chance to celebrate with each other to recognize the hard and good times together,” Wendy says.

To New Beginnings

“It was a huge honor and a very humbling experience to ring the bell,” Iris says. Iris’s strength as a living donor demonstrates how helping others can truly transform lives.

“A wave of emotions hit me as I read the plaque and rang the bell. It’s been an awesome experience with the whole team and the center being so welcoming,” Palomino describes. Palomino had been on dialysis for about 13 years. She felt so grateful to be able to receive a kidney transplant. Now, she looks forward with the ability to give back and is thankful for a new way of life.

“Project Bell is a second chance to me. Ringing the bell gave me a sense of freedom. I got the courage to live my life and reach my dreams,” Aaron describes. 8 years ago, Aaron started his journey for kidney transplant care. Now, he’s happy to be off dialysis and is getting back to his life by working toward his dream as a filmmaker. “This is the best transplant team in the world. I want to thank the staff and everyone that helped me to make this happen,” Aaron mentions.

Looking Ahead for the Abdominal Transplant Center

“The bells bring home what the patient journey is all about,” says UT Health Austin transplant surgeon Nicole Turgeon, MD, who serves as the Transplant Director for the Abdominal Transplant Center. “When you take patients from the evaluation phase to the transplantation phase and you see them ring that bell, that joy is immense inside of them. It’s a humbling experience to watch and help them. Getting to share this moment with my patients makes it much more meaningful and drives a strong purpose as to what and why we do things here.”

The Abdominal Transplant Center also celebrates its one-year anniversary with the installation of these bells from Project Bell. The center is the only multi-organ transplant unit in Austin. While the transplant center continues to conduct ongoing research, gather access for patients to transplants, and teach students and residents, they have performed:

  • 7 adult transplant procedures
  • 2 pediatric transplant procedures
  • 9 living donor procedures

The next step they’re looking forward to is performing pancreas transplants. They also are working to build the liver transplant program aiming to open in 2025.

For more information about the Abdominal Transplant Center or to request an appointment, please call 1-512-324-7930 or visit here.

For more information about Project Bell or to support their initiatives, follow Project Bell on Instagram or visit here.

About the Partnership Between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton

The collaboration between UT Health Austin and Ascension brings together medical professionals, medical school learners, and researchers who are all part of the integrated mission of transforming healthcare delivery and redesigning the academic health environment to better serve society. This collaboration allows highly specialized providers who are at the forefront of the latest research, diagnostic, and technological developments to build an integrated system of care that is a collaborative resource for clinicians and their patients.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.