My hands shivered as I carefully composed the flower on the nurse’s slim hands. “Are you nervous, sweetie?” she asked. I knew the tremors were not due to nervousness, but due to the effects of my medication, cyclosporine. Thankfully, I was still able to articulate the henna designs for my nurses at Duke University Hospital, where I was admitted for four long months. As a way of giving back to the staff, I thought of doing harmless, temporary tattoos for these inspiring people who took phenomenal care of me. I appreciated how they addressed my every need. My time at Duke continues to be the most challenging, and life-altering, experience yet.
In August 2012, I was diagnosed with aplastic anemia just prior to starting my junior year of high school in Maryland. The summer before my junior year was fantastic. I spent time with my friends, and visited Canada with family. I even laugh today when I think back to my greatest concern at the time. The first day of school was approaching. At five feet tall, I was tired of looking like a munchkin, and by late August, I was scrambling to find a new pair of sandals with heels! Little did I know I had much bigger problems headed my way.
My diagnosis unraveled itself through a simple mosquito bite. While scratching the bite, I discovered red spots on my skin called petechiae. They started appearing all over my hands and feet. After a trip to the doctor, a blood test, and a bone marrow biopsy, my doctor confirmed her suspicions and informed us of the diagnosis. After countless blood transfusions, luckily for me, we discovered my brother was a match for a bone marrow transplant.
My mother and I headed to Duke where I received intensive chemotherapy followed by bone marrow harvested from my loving brother. I had my transplant at the age of 16. At first sight, the tiny transplant unit seemed like a scary place. Only adult visitors were allowed beyond the two locked doors that led into the unit. All visitors were permitted in only after they washed hands, wore shoe coverings, and a mask to protect the patients. I was terrified when I discovered I would be confined and isolated in this one cramped room for four months. The first day in the transplant unit I sat on my bed and let the reality of it sink in as the tears flowed down my face.
Although all went well initially, the side effects arrived a few weeks afterwards: I found my hair scattered across my bed. I couldn’t eat because I constantly threw up, and I lost my ability to taste as all my taste buds died. Despite all the hardships, my conversations with doctors and nurses about my treatment kept my spirits up. I welcomed the opportunity to increase my knowledge about medical science. As a person interested in science, I was fascinated learning about the various medications, their functions, and side effects. Still, I had many struggles due to the months of not eating, chemotherapy, immunosuppressive medication, and inadequate exercise as both my body and mind deteriorated. As a result, it became very difficult for me to focus on school work.
At times, I felt lonely and hopeless as I went through the excruciating treatment. But I learned there was hope in the words of God as I began to pray for everything to be alright again. It is difficult to describe the contrast between desperation and hope. Life was hard, but I never gave up my belief that things would turn out okay. I continued my education with the hospital teacher, and tutored myself through advanced placement psychology. I was determined to continue my education rather than let my transplant prevent me from accomplishing my life goals.
Life was also a challenge because I understood the strain it was putting on my family. I hated seeing my family in anguish because of me. My brothers occasionally visited me from Maryland when they had time off from school, but they were not allowed inside the unit since they were children. However, that didn't stop them from keeping in touch. They met me at the locked glass door and communicated with me on their phones as we cherished each other's company. It was a struggle for me to be away from my younger siblings for so long.
Even though I did not have my brothers with me throughout my transplant, I did meet one special friend who was like a brother to me. Jamie was one of the most enthusiastic nine-year old children I had ever met. He was battling sickle cell anemia, and had a transplant from an unrelated donor. The hospital often held events like bingo or treasure hunts for the younger children, and I remember him as one of the few active participants. One day I was sitting in my room, and little Jamie’s head poked in and he asked
"Rasha, do you want to play with me? They are having treasure hunt and it's no fun when I'm playing alone."
After I started joining Jamie in the activities, I noticed my time in the unit became somewhat tolerable, and at times even enjoyable as I tried to make his time fun. The minutes would fly by when we played cards or watched movies together. It helped me forget about how I was feeling. It brought me joy to see this young boy laugh again, and I too appreciated the human interaction. But sadly Jamie’s fun did not last long.
After four months, I was out of the transplant unit, and back home. Soon after I returned, I found out from another family in the unit that Jamie had died because of a rejected transplant. Even though I was in shock and depressed for days, I am proud that I was able to make his last moments joyous. Sometimes, the survivors’ guilt haunts me as I remember Jamie and the other patients who were not as lucky as me. But I have decided to turn this guilt into a motivating force.
After overcoming this deadly disease, I feel empowered to do all I can to make the world a better place and to give back to those who have helped me. I cannot express how grateful and fortunate I am for my life-saving transplant. My experience with the doctors and nurses ignited my ambition for science even more, as I was able to see these heroes in action. Their determination to help patients inspired me further while providing me with valuable exposure to the hospital environment. As a child, I always loved science and wanted to pursue a career in the field. This desire to go into research has carried on with me into adulthood, amplified through my transplant experience.
However, this is no longer something I merely want to do; it is something I must do. I believe it is my duty as a survivor to contribute all I can to make my new life meaningful and worthwhile. “What causes aplastic anemia? How can we do a bone marrow transplant without requiring harmful chemotherapy and radiation? Can we regenerate the patient’s own stem cells without requiring a transplant?” As a curious person, I am haunted by these questions every day. By seeking a career into research, I hope to one day help answer these questions and to improve the lives of others just as my heroes did for me.
Rasha was awarded a 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 Matthew Debono Memorial Scholarship. Rasha, who is still taking some post-transplant immunosuppressive medications, is currently attending Montgomery College in Maryland majoring in biotechnology. She has combined that with a 20-hour per week internship at a microbiology laboratory. In January 2016, she will be transferring to the University of Maryland – College Park where she will continue her path towards a medical career. She hopes to go on to medical school and become a hematologist or complete a PhD to go into medical research.