Mason family searches for bone marrow donor to help father fight leukemia

Ally Guo | Staff Writer

From left to right: Meena Kumari, Shruti Garg, Tanish Garg, and Rajesh Kumar. Since November, the family has been searching for a bone marrow donor to help Kumar replenish his bone marrow after undergoing chemotherapy treatments for his Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

It was a seemingly normal day when Shruti Garg was told her father had been rushed to the hospital.

Rajesh Kumar, the father of junior Shruti and 7th-grader Tanish Garg, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) in November of 2020. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), leukemias are cancers of the blood cells, and ALL is a type that progresses especially quickly. Beginning in the bone marrow, where new blood cells are made, ALL develops from immature, or not fully grown, lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell vital to the immune system.

Garg said that when her father was first diagnosed, it was with pre-stage one ALL, and despite experiencing a loss of appetite and diarrhea, he was not too concerned. It was not until after his first chemotherapy (chemo) treatment that “everything hit really hard for [her] family.”

“He came home and he was really weak,” Garg said. “He could barely talk. He was in bed all day. Then we realized that he needed four to five chemo sessions, so after each session he had, he kept getting weaker.”

Ever since her father’s diagnosis, Garg said her family has been “very ‘not normal.’” Her mother is often at the hospital all day whenever her father goes through chemo and Garg, although initially an in-person student, ended up switching to remote learning the last three weeks of the first semester to help take care of her younger brother, which took a toll on her mental health.

“When my dad came home, we would constantly take care of him and give him anything he wants,” Garg said. “He had to be on a really strict diet too, so making food for him [was a challenge]. It’s really busy and we never know what to do.”

The family soon realized that Kumar would need a bone marrow transplant to continue chemo. The ACS describes chemo as a type of treatment that utilizes drugs to kill cancerous cells. The drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach all throughout the body and target cells that are in the process of dividing. However, higher doses of chemo drugs for ALL can kill not just the cancer cells but “severely damage the bone marrow” as a whole, leading to “life-threatening infections, bleeding, and other problems due to low blood cell counts.” Thus, a bone marrow transplant is often needed after these treatments to restore the bone marrow.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to find genetic matches for minorities, people of mixed race, and ethnic groups with a history of racial diversity. Even among family members, a suitable donor is often rare, with about 70% of patients not having a perfectly matching relative. In fact, only about 1% of registered donors ever match with a patient.

“When you’re trying to find a matching donor, it’s not their blood type, it’s stem cells, and it’s a really specific code,” Garg said. “Finding a match is really hard, especially in Asians.”

According to Garg, her family was “relying on the doctors” to locate a donor at first. However, when they failed to find a match in the registry, her parents began to post on social media for help. Although they managed to find a match in the UK, it didn’t end up working out last minute, and they were forced to look elsewhere. While continuing to use social media, they decided to also spread the word at school, as the large Asian population increased the chances of finding a match.

The only requirement for a bone marrow donor is to be between 18 and 60 years old and be in good health. After registration, a free kit and pre-paid return envelope will be sent to the potential donor’s home within two to three weeks, where they will need to collect and send back a cheek/saliva swab — a process that only takes about six minutes.

Garg said that even if students are unable to sign up as a donor, they can still help just by spreading the word to get more people registered.

“Even if you sign up and you are not a match for my dad, you can always be a match for someone else and save someone else’s life out there because there’s so many patients that have leukemia that need a bone marrow transplant,” Garg said. “And maybe that one person might be there.”

Despite the fact that a match has not yet been found, Kumar has fortunately been feeling better since he finished his last chemo session in January, able to go outside on walks more often. Garg said she values seeing him “get stronger day by day,” especially since he enjoys being in nature and used to spend “almost all day outside.”

Although Garg and her family know that “things can get scary” once Kumar receives a bone marrow transplant, they are trying to remain optimistic in order to support her father, whom she described as “very outgoing” and a person who “always finds a way to make you happy” and “always puts others first.”

“If my dad sees that one of us is sad, then he gets stressed about it, so we’re trying to stay positive around him,” Garg said. “He knows we’re worried about him, but we just try to stay positive and happy and tell him that everything’s gonna be okay and [he’ll] find a match.”

Garg said she encouraged everyone to value each day and not take it for granted because you never know what is going to happen next.

“I was just living my life the day before,” Garg said. “I never expected — we never expected any of this to happen actually. I never thought someone in our family would get cancer and [that] this would affect us a lot. Then the next day, we realized that the next couple of months — who knows how many years it’s going to be — [are] not going to be a normal time. We have to just be there for each other and try to manage the family.”

Photo contributed by Shruti Garg