PBS’ “Human: The World Within” (9-11 p.m. Wednesdays through June 2 on KCTS-TV) explores how the human body works using specific examples that feature Washington citizens, including an Edmonds man who began fighting three bouts of cancer at age 8.
“Pulse,” episode two (10 p.m. May 5), tells the story of the human heartbeat and uses Lacey’s Steve Dean as a case study.
Dean, who drove a city bus for Intercity Transit in Olympia, had a heart attack in 2015. Two years ago, realizing he had too much stress on the job, he made the switch to driving for Dial-A-Lift, a door-to-door, shared-ride public transportation service for people with disabilities.
By switching from Intercity Transit to Dial-A-Lift, Dean immediately started moving more throughout his workday.
“You’re in and out of your seat helping customers into and off the van,” he says. “It’s a lot more movement and less stressful.”
For the episode “Defend” (10 p.m. May 19), “Human” spends time with Milton Wright III, as the program explores the body’s immune system.
At age 8, Wright was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which he initially fought with chemotherapy. After a period of remission, it came back when he was 15 and again when he was 20.
When the third round of cancer hit, Wright became the second person in Seattle to be treated with chimeric antigen receptor T cell immunotherapy, which re-educates a person’s immune system to recognize and treat cancer as an invader to be battled against.
Dr. Rebecca Gardner, an attending physician and oncologist at Seattle Children’s hospital and an associate professor at the University of Washington, was Wright’s doctor during his immunotherapy treatment. She’s also featured in the PBS special, which filmed locally just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
“The reason I became a pediatric oncologist was because I knew there’s a small field out there that thought, how about we use the immune system to treat cancer?” Gardner says. “What better way to get rid of cancer than to use your own body? For these kids, with the standard treatments we give them, they’re effective a lot of the time, but these kids are also left with long-term side effects from all of the treatments they’ve gotten. Whereas when you can use your own body as the treatment, you may have some side effects, but we anticipate that the long-term side effects are much less.”
Gardner says additional progress has been made in immunotherapy development in the years since Wright’s treatment.
“What worked for Milton was great that it worked for Milton, but it only worked about 50% of the time,” Gardner says. “So we’ve now developed better products on top of that, and we’ve continued to learn more and more.”
After recovering from immunotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant, a cancer-free Wright moved to Idaho to figure out what to do with this life. He landed a job in the medical field that paid for him to study to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA). After a year-and-a-half working as a CNA in Coeur d’Alene, Wright moved back to Seattle and knew exactly where he wanted to work: Seattle Children’s hospital.
“To this day, people are surprised by that,” Wright says. “But to be honest, I always found Seattle Children’s hospital feels right. I feel like it was my home away from home because I spent so much time there. The staff felt like family. Going there I felt like I was going to visit friends.”
He’s worked as a CNA in the Seattle Children’s ICU for three years alongside some nurses who helped care for Wright, now 27, during his multiple bouts of cancer.
“He is a well-loved face around the hospital,” Gardner says. “He’s one of the most selfless individuals ever. He’s just a really amazing human being.”