Unexpected reunion rekindles friendship

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120911KenandGilly.JPGCall it what you will: Coincidence, happy accident or synchronicity.
Four days after emergency brain surgery at MD Anderson last July, Ken Irving called it incredible.

"I knew it was her right away," he says.

He's referring to Gilly Agosto, a patient advocate for the Department of Volunteer Services at MD Anderson, who walked into his room on the Brain and Spine inpatient unit the afternoon of Friday, July 6, and introduced herself.

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 said.

"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.

He'd undergone 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.

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.

120910gyminhalafax.JPGInformation about the terrorist attacks 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 night, once we were settled, we all walked to a sports bar to see footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Centers," Ken recalls. "It was infuriating."

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

"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'd 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, the couples went back to their lives. They hadn't seen each other since 2001.

The Irvings had welcomed two more children -- sons Max and Matthew -- to their family. Their daughter Madison had been just three on Sept. 11, and Gilly remembers comparing notes about the Agostos' three children with Ken during their talks.

Their chance meeting -- and reunion -- continues to amaze Agosto. "At two very intense times, something brought us together," she says.

Janet Irving is sure the connection will last.

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

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