It's one of Rainer Storb's favorite times of the day: his watery morning commute, a 4 ½-mile course that takes him from Lake Washington to South Lake Union in Seattle, under three major bridges rumbling with thousands of cars.
Here, alone in his shell, he's just a rower—not a world-renowned scientist, not a doctor, not an expert on bone-marrow transplantation and blood cancers, not one of the founders of one of the most important cancer research centers in the country. Putting oars to water is how he charges his batteries for the day ahead.
Storb stands well over 6 feet, with a powerful build that is usually hidden by button-down shirts and khaki pants. He turned 74 in 2009. And here's why it's important to mention his age: He's passionate about his work, passionate about his life and his family. But he also knows that many people his age, stronger and still contributing to their families and communities, become more susceptible to disease, including cancer.
"We're sitting ducks for all kinds of things," he said. "I'm 74, and at 74, I don’t want to die yet."
But it's not death that preoccupies him. Living does. He has been an avid mountaineer, runner and skier. Now, he races his scull in open waters throughout the Northwest.
More importantly, of course, Storb has much more left to accomplish in cancer research, goals that are driven by his concern for his patients.
His longtime research specialty, stem-cell transplantation, certainly has been a lifesaver for many people with blood and bone-marrow cancers, but it's also a harrowing treatment that early in its development few could survive.
Storb has been there nearly every step of the way. He worked with Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, the bone marrow transplantation pioneer who won a Nobel Prize for his research.
As one of the founding members of the Hutchinson Center, Storb was thrilled when their treatments began to save people's lives consistently. As both a researcher and bedside doctor, he saw the suffering of his patients who went through a traditional transplant. At one point, people older than 40 couldn’t get one because doctors didn't think they could survive it.
That age limit was lifted as major changes were made to the treatment. Starting in the mid-1990s, Storb developed what came to be called a mini-transplant because he drastically reduced levels of chemotherapy and radiation; eradication of cancer was accomplished through the action of immune cells from the donor graft. In many cases, patients are not hospitalized when undergoing the procedure. Patients as old as 78 have received the treatment.
"We're still working on reducing the complications of cancer treatment," he said. "We have made a lot of progress. I can envision a day when we hope to get rid of radiation and heavy chemotherapy to treat patients."
On his way home, it's not as easy to detach himself from his work. It's there, visible to him for at least a mile as he rows away from the imposing buildings of the Hutchinson Center on South Lake Union.
But soon, he'll round the corner heading toward Lake Washington. He might even pick up a little speed and turn his commute into a workout. He's already a legend in open water racing, defeating rowers one-third his age, sometimes even younger. The waters may be choppier this afternoon as the motorboats emerge.
Storb is not worried. Sometimes rowing is like his work: Expect rough waters, but don't forget to navigate with confidence.