A Ring of Hope
The installation of two special bells commemorates a significant milestone for donors and recipients of the Abdominal Transplant Center.
Reviewed by: Nicole Turgeon, MD, FACS, Alexa Spar, Wendy Spar, Iris Bartov, Martha Palomino, and Aaron Willridge
Written by: Kaylee Fang
History of Project Bell
Alexa and Isabella Spar, two sisters, are the Co-Presidents of the nonprofit organization, Project Bell. The mission of Project Bell is to donate new beginning bells to cancer centers for patients to ring after completing their course of treatment. Project Bell was founded 6 years ago when their mother, Wendy started radiation for a brain tumor. The family spent 7 weeks in Boston to support her during treatment.
“We managed to keep an optimistic outlook on life. A big portion of this is due to a special bell hanging in the halls of the radiation center,” Alexa says.
The center has a unique tradition where patients would ring a bell 3 times and recite a particular poem when completing the treatment.
“This ceremony offered a sense of accomplishment. It created relationships among 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 treatment, Alexa and Isabella began raising money to donate bells to other cancer centers. They have grown the project exponentially and donated over 80 bells to cancer centers globally. Over 100,000 people ring a bell each year to celebrate significant milestones in their treatment journey.
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, received Project Bell’s first donation for transplant programs.
“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.
“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.
Giving the Gift of Life
“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.
To New Beginnings
“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. 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,” Dr. Turgeon explains.
Nicole Turgeon, MD, FACS, serves as the Transplant Director for both the Abdominal Transplant Center, a clinical partnership between Dell Children’s Medical Center and UT Health Austin.
The Abdominal Transplant Center also celebrates its one-year anniversary with the installation of these bells from Project Bell founders. The Transplant Center is the first in the nation to receive these bells which had previously been gifted only to cancer and chemotherapy centers. Congratulations to Nicole Turgeon, MD, Brian Lee, MD, Joel Adler, MD, and the entire Adult Transplant team. You have made an incredible impact on our community in a very short time.
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.
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