Photo: Winnie Au

Kelly DePanfilis
The Can-Do Donor
Five years ago, as a newly minted oncology nurse working the night shift at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, Kelly DePanfilis stopped to chat with one of her favorite patients, a middle-aged man with progressive leukemia. He was in the hospital for treatment, but what he really hoped for was a bone marrow transplant. He talked about Be the Match, a registry that connects patients with donors. “It made me want to see if I matched with anyone,” DePanfilis says. “He said, ‘Well, get on there!’”

DePanfilis was shocked at how simple “getting on there” turned out to be: All she had to do was sign up and swab her cheek. It was unlikely that she’d be this patient’s bone marrow soul mate, but maybe she could help someone else. She just didn’t imagine she’d get the chance so quickly. Not long after being swabbed, DePanfilis got a call about a potential recipient: a 6-month-old boy born without an immune system—meaning one cold could become life-threatening pneumonia. Within six months, she was checked in to the hospital as his anonymous transplant donor.

For the procedure, done under general anesthesia, doctors used a needle to withdraw marrow from DePanfilis’s pelvic bone. She was told the median recovery time is 20 days and can include muscle pain and fatigue, but she had only some soreness. “Honestly, the next day, I went out shopping,” she says. The boy who received her bone marrow cells is now thriving and able to run around the playground like other kids.

DePanfilis was so energized by the experience that she started volunteering at registry events, and last year she launched her own at Norwalk Hospital. “One couple drove 45 minutes just to get swabbed,” she says. In a single day, approximately 50 potential donors signed up—more than twice the average for one of these events—and swab kits were given to at least 30 more. Every year there are 20,000 people who might benefit from a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, so the more potential donors, the better—especially when you consider that 70 percent of patients who require a transplant need to look beyond their family for a donor. “When you say ‘needle’ and ‘pelvic area,’ people get nervous,” DePanfilis says. “But I want everyone to know how easy giving this gift can be.”

Photo: Courtesy of Grace Bandow

Grace Bandow, MD
The Skin Saver
While volunteering at a Syrian-refugee camp in Jordan in 2014, dermatologist Grace Bandow saw what a serious health risk dry skin can be. Exposure to the sun, heat, and wind causes skin to become parched, which may be followed by eczema and severe infections. Her surprisingly simple, fast-acting solution: Coat the cracked skin on the refugees’ hands and feet with Vaseline Jelly, a medicine cabinet staple. When the makers of Vaseline heard about Bandow’s work, they invited her to serve as an adviser to the Vaseline Healing Project, an aid effort that donates Vaseline and other medical supplies during emergencies. She returned to Jordan in 2015 and went to Nepal last year to keep up the Good Samaritan work.

Photo: Courtesy of subjects

Pat Rice and Claire Fitzgerald
The Baby Cuddlers
Years ago, when a doctor suspected their baby had a brain tumor, Claire Fitzgerald and Pat Rice spent many stressful hours in a hospital pediatric department. “Our son turned out to be fine, but I decided that when my hair turned gray, I would go back and say thank you,” says Fitzgerald. She kept her word: In 1995, at age 61, she started volunteering in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in California. Her task: to cuddle premature and sick infants when their parents couldn’t be with them. The next year she got her husband to join her. “I came home one day and said to Pat, ‘There don’t seem to be many men in the program.’ Bless his heart, I shamed him into volunteering.” Rice, who’s known for crooning Frank Sinatra tunes while rocking tiny patients to sleep, notes that soothing a baby can slow her racing heart and deepen her breathing. “These children get all the medical attention they need from the doctors and nurses, but we provide that extra special compassion and love,” he says. “We’re a part of the child’s healthcare team.”

Now, on top of holding infants for three hours a week (Fitzgerald was recently recognized by President Obama for putting in 4,000 hours at the hospital), the retired psychologists help lead the cuddlers training program and educate attending interns about TLC in the NICU. Thanks in part to their dedication, the cuddling program has become so popular that it has a year-long waiting list. “I remember a baby who weighed just a pound and a half who was in the NICU for three months. I’d hold her every time we went in,” says Fitzgerald. “Eight years later, we were at a soccer field watching one of our grandchildren when the coach said, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.’ This beautiful child with flowing blonde hair came over to us and said, ‘Can I hug you? My daddy and mommy said you used to hug me when I was little.’”

Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Peterson

Samantha Peterson
The Shape Shifter
At 10, Samantha Peterson hoped to become an Olympic swimmer. At 11, a school nurse diagnosed her with scoliosis. At 13, back pain and breathing issues forced her to give up swimming—and with it, she thought, her dreams.

Peterson’s spine curved 42 degrees and was getting worse even though she wore a back brace 24/7. Four orthopedic surgeons were baffled; eventually, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting connective tissue. She required surgery that involved two 18-inch rods, 17 screws, and a bone graft fusing 15 of her vertebrae.

At age 15, Peterson started learning how to move again—no twisting, lots of squatting. And once she began to feel better, she was inspired to start Shift Scoliosis, a nonprofit that provides resources for scoliosis patients: “I wanted to help make life better for kids like me.” Initially she focused on donating blankets to post-op children in developing countries, but one day she heard from a hospital that was turning away the gifts; its patients’ conditions had been diagnosed at such an advanced stage that doctors were sending children home, saying there was nothing they could do. So Peterson set her sights on a new dream: to initiate mass scoliosis screenings.

To date, Shift has helped screen more than 4,000 American children, and that number could soon skyrocket. This year Peterson will beta test a medical device she helped develop to detect scoliosis in school-age kids earlier than ever before. For her work, Peterson was recently recognized by Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. Go to to learn more about Peterson and maybe even find ways that you, too, can be a changemaker.

Photo: Winnie Au

Beatrice Welters
The Crusader
Beatrice Welters, a former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer when she was 56. She needed a mastectomy, but not chemotherapy or radiation, and more than nine years later, she’s in excellent health. Welters feels lucky that her cancer was found early, especially because she knows her experience isn’t typical. Although black women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, they’re about 40 percent more likely to die from it. One factor is that many black women aren’t getting the medical care they need soon enough. “We’ve got to make a dent in this disparity,” Welters says.

To that end, she’s partnered with NYU Langone Medical Center to inform black women about the importance of early detection and treatment. As part of the Beatrice W. Welters Breast Health Outreach and Navigation Program, local healthcare helpers, called patient navigators, spread the gospel of mammograms in churches, salons, and gyms. They also arrange transportation and childcare so women can see doctors. This year’s aim is to reach 5,000 women and facilitate 2,000 screenings in Brooklyn, then expand to Harlem. “Breast cancer is an overwhelming experience,” says Welters. “We want to hold women’s hands through the entire process.”

Photo: Cody Pickens

Jennifer Doudna, PhD
The Radical Researcher
For roughly seven years, Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, went to her lab to study the immune system of bacteria. “It was a curiosity-driven science project,” she says—but one that would eventually lead to what could be “the scientific discovery of the century.” With collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, Doudna developed a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, which exploits the bacterial immune defense to quickly and easily rewrite the genes of any living organism. Within the next decade, Doudna says, CRISPR could help treat cancer and sickle cell anemia and may be used to limit the spread of Zika, changing medicine as we know it.

Photo: Courtesy of Husseini K. Manji

Husseini K. Manji, MD
The Depression Slayer
Experts used to think depression resulted from an imbalance of neurotransmitters, but research now indicates the cause is more complicated. One leader of the new thinking is Husseini Manji, who’s provided evidence that the underlying factor may be changes in the health of neurons and the way they communicate with one another. This shift has ignited the search for better drugs at Janssen, a Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company, where Manji oversees 200 scientists. He believes that developing effective medication not only helps those with mental illness but fights the stigma that surrounds it. “When a treatment helps people improve or get well, everyone suddenly says, ‘So this is a medical condition after all!’” Outside the lab, he has teamed up with former congressman Patrick Kennedy on a global initiative to change the way people think about mental illness.

Photos: Courtesy of subjects

Behnam Badie, MD and Christine Brown, PhD
The Risk Takers
Glioblastoma is the most common and deadliest form of brain cancer in adults, with an average survival of less than 18 months. But that bleak prognosis may be changing, thanks to neurosurgeon Behnam Badie and cancer immunologist Christine Brown, both at City of Hope cancer center in California. They’re conducting human trials of a game-changing form of CAR T-cell therapy, using a technique in which genetically reprogrammed immune cells are injected directly into the brain to target and kill cancer cells. While the research is still in early stages, preliminary results are promising: Three months of treatment destroyed multiple tumors in one patient, who was able to go back to his job as a physician.

Photo: Courtesy of Carol Head

Carol Head
The Tireless Advocate
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is the Rodney Dangerfield of diseases: It gets next to no respect. “We’re all fatigued” is the response Carol Head sometimes hears when she tells people she’s fundraising on behalf of CFS. “They don’t realize it’s a debilitating condition affecting up to two and a half million Americans,” she says. Since becoming president of the nonprofit Solve ME/CFS Initiative in 2013, Head has fought attempts to ax federal funding for research, called for a more legitimate-sounding name for the disorder ("myalgic encephalomyelitis") and orchestrated a public awareness campaign with a video in Times Square—where up to one and a half million people a day learned about a disease that makes people sick, not just sleepy.

Photo: Winnie Au

Mellini Kantayya
The Accidental Activist
Mellini Kantayya has a friend whose daughter has severe food allergies. Last summer, in a Facebook post, the friend announced she’d been charged $600 for EpiPens. Kantayya had just picked up the portable epinephrine injectors for a $25 copay: “My husband has a swelling condition, though it’s never been life-threatening. Our doctor wanted him to have a backup since we were going to be traveling.” That EpiPen’s manufacturer, Mylan, would put it so far out of reach for some families seemed unfair. “There’s no reason it should ever be so expensive. It cost around $100 less than ten years ago!” she says.

Kantayya, a Brooklyn actor and author, posted a rant on, a site that sends letters to lawmakers, and shared it on social media. So did her friends, and their friends, and friends of friends—until 80,000 people had forwarded letters to Congress. Then a group of senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, wrote their own stern letter to Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, calling the product “exorbitantly expensive” and noting a 670 percent increase in her total annual compensation since 2007. The next week, a Senate subcommittee announced plans to investigate Mylan’s EpiPen pricing. “I had no idea it would take off like this,” says Kantayya. “But I’m so glad it did, because something needed to happen.”

Photo: Eli Meir Kaplan

Myra Anderson
The Wellness Evangelist
Five days a week, Myra Anderson drives her Mitsubishi Mirage to churches around Charlottesville, Virginia, and turns their fellowship halls into workout studios, leading participants ages 7 to 81 in cardio classes set to Christian chart toppers. As devout about fitness as she is about faith, Anderson calls her class Temple Fit (“Temple stronger, serve Him longer” is her motto, a nod to First Corinthians); it’s the flagship offering of her roving one-woman gym, Inspire Fitness. Anderson accepts only pay-as-you-wish donations; the workouts are bookended by prayers, hugs, and high fives. Before joining Anderson’s class, three-quarters of her clients had never set foot in a gym. Now former pew potatoes report trimmer waistlines, better moods, and lower blood pressure. Anderson’s own fitness journey started two and a half years ago, when she found herself in the ER for shoulder pain and the physician suggested weight loss surgery. She was diabetic, weighed close to 400 pounds, and hadn’t worked out in more than a decade. A few days later, she tried a Jazzercise class; within a year, she’d earned certifications for teaching group fitness and personal training. Since 2014, Anderson has lost 151 pounds; today she no longer needs diabetes medication. Her goal is to help clients make similar changes: “They say looking at me gives them hope for themselves.”

Photo: Ashley Woo

Max Ritvo
The Poet of Living and Dying
Before he succumbed to cancer this past August at age 25, Max Ritvo used art, comedy, and conversation to probe the irony of being young, smitten by life, giddy with potential, and terminally ill. At age 16, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a painful bone and tissue cancer. He and his family were dumbfounded, but once the news sank in, Ritvo refused to sugarcoat his situation. Instead, he spent much of the next nine years urging people to confront ideas of illness and death (his as well as theirs) and, more radically, to laugh with him. His book of poetry, Four Reincarnations, published posthumously, includes a tribute to the lab mice used to test his experimental treatment; it’s silly, sweet, and sad all at once. In the poem “Afternoon,” he wrote, “When I was about to die / my body lit up / like when I leave my house / without my wallet. / What am I missing? I ask / patting my chest / pocket.” Ritvo was able to revel in the absurdity—and poignancy—of his condition. “He said the worst approach to suffering is to try to make it go away, and the worst approach to happiness is to try to make it stay,” says Ritvo’s wife, Victoria. He performed his comedy with dark bits, interviewing the medical port in his chest (which he nicknamed Mediport Michael) and pretending to have a medical emergency onstage. “Max’s lens was unique,” says his mother, Ariella Riva Ritvo-Slifka. “I’ve had strangers write to tell me about their fears and how his poetry has taught them to think in ways they never had before. That would have made Max ecstatic.”