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Asha‚ for hope

Moving from one country and culture to another is never easy. Moving and then discovering you have a life-threatening illness is even tougher.

But 13-year-old Asha Ali prefers to look at the bright side. Two years after Asha and her family immigrated to the United States from a Somalian refugee camp in Kenya‚ she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Instead of being angry at what happened to her‚ she’s just grateful the events occurred in that order.

“If I was still in Somalia I wouldn’t have gotten a doctor‚ and I wouldn’t have found out I had cancer‚” Asha says.

Asha’s family first learned something was wrong when Asha bruised her knee and it swelled so much that she ended up on crutches. Then her mother noticed her lymph nodes were enlarged. Asha’s primary care physician sent her to the University‚ where she was diagnosed with ALL.

That was the bad news. The good news is what happened next.

Asha found herself in the care of Ashish Kumar, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric oncologist at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview, who also works with the Department of Pediatrics’ Global Pediatrics Program to improve the health of children in developing countries. It was the best of both worlds: Asha was able to receive state-of-the-art care‚ while she and her family also benefited from Kumar’s familiarity with intercultural work.

After nearly two years of chemotherapy‚ Asha is doing well. Kumar doubts that would be the case if she were still in Africa. The survival rate for ALL in the United States‚ he says‚ is about 70 percent. In developing countries he figures it’s closer to 10 percent-at best.

“I’ve spent some time in Uganda‚ which is next door to Kenya‚” Kumar says. “I can tell you, most kids with leukemia in these countries‚ they don’t survive.”

Asha and her mother are extremely grateful for the care Asha has received from physicians‚ interpreters‚ and many others. For Asha‚ the experience has been inspirational.

“Since I was little I wanted to be a doctor‚ but I didn’t know what kind‚” she says. “Now I’ve decided to be a pediatric oncologist.”

Kumar says he’s been inspired‚ too-by Asha’s resilience and cheerfulness. He notes that in Hindi‚ his native language‚ “asha” means “hope.”

“She couldn’t have picked a better name for herself‚” he says.

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