Longtime Hollings supporter creates new award in loving memory of late wife

April 19, 2024
a couple poses with the marsh behind them
Marti and Harry Parnell were married for 23 years before signet ring cell carcinoma took her life. Photo provided

“Cancer warrior” isn’t a moniker one would be given without very good reason, but anyone who’s met Harry Parnell would not hesitate to say he’s earned the title. Through years of heartache and hard work, he has fundraised and donated over $184,000 to cancer research and education at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, all in loving memory of his late wife, Marti. In 2016, he even established a fund at Hollings in her name – Marti’s Wish Fund.

Harry not only holds his own personal fundraisers, but he also makes annual contributions to the fund through his procurement of rare collectible whiskeys that are auctioned at Hollings’ yearly signature food and wine event, Gourmet and Grapes. He was even honored for his outstanding fundraising efforts and dedication to supporting cancer research in 2023 with the Gourmet and Grapes “Courage in Cancer” award.

Most recently, he collaborated with Hollings’ administration to establish the Marti’s Wish Award, which presented two Hollings scientists $50,000 each for their research projects studying gastrointestinal cancers. The purpose of the Marti’s Wish Award is to support research, education and outreach for gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, with special consideration given to proposals focusing on signet ring cell carcinoma and H. pylori bacteria, which took Marti’s life in the fall of 2015.

Toros Dincman, M.D., Ph.D., one of the recipients of the Marti’s Wish Award, expressed his gratitude and highlighted the significance of innovative research in securing external funding.

“Whenever we see a path report that says, ‘signet ring,’ we’re exceptionally concerned because although these are always associated with really aggressive cancers, research is quite limited or lacking on GI cancers that have these features,” said Dincman.

“We just need to do more work on it. We need to focus our research efforts on it, and this is where this award is great because we can do this, grow this, get more understanding and hopefully identify some new therapies.”

Marti’s diagnosis

Marti and Harry were happily married for 23 years before cancer stole Marti’s life. A Myrtle Beach resident since 1974, Marti was the friendly face that welcomed guests to the Ocean Lakes Family Campground for 35 years. Recognized as The Jackson Companies’ “Outstanding Teammate” in 2007, she was known for her honesty, compassion and remarkable way with people.

a middleaged woman cradles a baby in her arms in a home dining room area 
Marti Parnell. Photo provided

In 2015, Marti paid a visit to her OB-GYN after she got “really sick,” according to Harry. It was discovered that Marti’s abdomen was full of fluid, but her doctor was unsure of the cause. The couple was told this could signify liver failure, heart disease or even cancer. She was quickly referred to Hollings physician Matthew F. Kohler, M.D., who conducted exploratory tests. While he did not initially identify any cancer, when the biopsy results came back a week later, it was a shocking diagnosis for everyone involved – stage 4 signet ring cell carcinoma.

Marti and Harry received this awful news on Sept. 1, 2015, and Marti passed away just over a month later, on Oct. 15. Before passing, she shared her last wish with her husband and her best friend, Sunita Patel, which was for the duo to find ways to donate time and money toward the education of primary care physicians and cancer experts so signet ring cell cancer could be more quickly identified, diagnosed and treated.

Signet ring cell carcinoma (SRCC) is a highly malignant cancer typically found in glandular cells that line the digestive organs. The cells resemble signet rings when examined under a microscope. The National Cancer Institute states that “SRCC is an aggressive and poorly differentiated gastric adenocarcinoma that occurs in the stomach in 90% of cases. Patients with early SRCC may not have clinical symptoms and are typically in the advanced stage when they present.”

Marti’s wish

The Marti’s Wish Fund was established with the hopes of bringing awareness to a rare form of cancer and keeping Marti’s memory alive in her community. Since then, it has grown substantially, mostly thanks to Harry’s dogged determination to educate providers and create change for future patients of SRRC.

The first two recipients of the Marti’s Wish Award are Dincman, who received funding for his project, “The Role of Sphingosine Kinase 2 in Gastric Signet Ring Cell Carcinoma,” and Judit Jimenez Sainz, Ph.D., whose project, “BRCA2 cellular localization as a prognostic factor in Helicobacter pylori-associated gastrointestinal cancers,” is being supported. Harry met with both scientists in February to talk about his passion for funding the discovery of new treatments for the disease and to raise awareness about its symptoms.

“I am just so thankful,” said Jimenez Sainz upon meeting Harry. “It is because of the opportunity you’re providing that this work is being done,” she beamed.

While Dincman and Jimenez Sainz are the first two awardees, Harry’s goal is to provide $50,000 to at least one Hollings GI cancer researcher every year.

four people stand in the Hollings lobby holding an oversized check for the Marti's Wish fund 
From left, Toros Dincman, M.D., Ph.D., Anna Beth Parnell, Harry Parnell and Judit Jimenez Sainz, Ph.D. The Parnells hope to fund at least one Hollings researcher every year. Photo by Clif Rhodes

In June 2023, Harry remarried. He and his wife, Anna Beth, are a dream team of passion and persistence, and they work together to ensure Marti’s legacy lives on.

“If we can help save one person’s life, it makes it all worthwhile,” Harry said.