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Unexpected reunion rekindles friendship

Volunteer Voice - Fall 2012

By Mary Brolley

Call it what you will: coincidence, happy accident or synchronicity. Four days after emergency brain surgery at MD Anderson last July, Ken Irving just called it incredible.

“I knew it was her right away,” he says.

He’s referring to Gilly Agosto, a patient advocate for Volunteer Services, who walked into his room on the Brain and Spine inpatient unit during his surgery recovery stay, and introduced herself.

Ken Irving and Gilly Agosto

Still a bit groggy, Irving couldn’t find the words to greet her, but his wife Janet was immediately struck by her unusual name.

“Did you say your name is Gilly?” she asked.

“Yes, why do you ask?” Agosto replied.

Nodding at Ken, Janet said, “Well, it’s just that my husband was on a plane from London with a couple named Gilly and Andy on Sept. 11, 2001, and the plane was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia …”

Stunned, Agosto looked at Ken, then down at her clipboard, then back at him. Then she made a beeline for him.

“Ken Irving!” she said, engulfing him in a hug. “And you’re Janet!” she added, turning to his wife. Then, for the first time in nearly 11 years, Gilly and Ken talked.

First, they talked about the diagnosis of advanced melanoma that landed Ken at MD Anderson in January 2011. Here, he underwent major surgeries to his nose and one of his salivary glands, followed by five courses of radiation. When scans revealed that the melanoma had spread to his brain, he had gamma knife radiosurgery in April 2012.

Then, in July, a seizure caused by brain lesions required emergency surgery.

Agosto’s volunteer patient advocate placement led her to his room for a visit and to make certain that he had no special needs or concerns. This was just a lucky day that brought these friends back together.

Fateful meeting turns strangers into friends

The Agostos and Ken Irving originally met as they waited for four hours on the tarmac in Halifax while authorities scrambled to find them and many other diverted passengers safe places to shelter. Far from home, they spent hours together during the next few days.

Information about the terrorist attacks on the New York and Washington, D.C., areas was hard to come by. Communication was difficult and no one knew when they’d be able to fly home. Their hosts — the citizens of Halifax — were generous and kind.

“First, we were brought to a high school. We slept on pool floats and air mattresses,” Ken recalls. “And we got to know each other — we talked for hours.”

“Late that first night, once we were settled, we all walked to a sports bar to see footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Centers,” Ken said. “It was infuriating.”

When townspeople offered to feed and shelter stranded passengers, the Agostos and another woman traveling alone were taken home by a local couple.

“I was doing fine at the school,” Ken laughs. “But a few hours later, they came back to get me.”

Four days after being diverted, everyone who had been on Continental Flight 35 out of Gatwick Airport reassembled at the Halifax airport to fly back to Houston. And, although they kept in touch via emails and holiday cards for a few years, Ken and the Agostos went back to their lives. They hadn’t seen each other since 2001.

Through the years, the Irvings welcomed two more children to their family. Their daughter had been just 3 on Sept. 11, and Gilly remembers comparing notes about the Agostos’ three children with Ken during their talks.

Their chance meeting — and special reunion — continues to amaze Gilly. “At two very intense times, something just brought us together,” she says.

Janet Irving is sure that the connection will last.

“We’re so glad that she walked into our room,” she says. “Now we’re irrevocably tied. She’s in my cell phone,” she adds with a laugh.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center