Indian American pediatrician Dr. Hurikadale Sundaresh spent more than 40 years tending to the health of children in Cleveland, Ohio, and was hoping to enjoy some time with his family following his retirement late last year year before his life got flipped upside down.
The newly-retired doctor and his wife had just embarked on a 12-day international cruise in April as the couple hoped to take advantage of his retirement by booking various trips.
“I had been cleared to travel by my physician – all of my test results were normal and I felt totally healthy,” Sundaresh told India-West.
By the end of the trip, he said he began to feel unusually tired. And upon their return, the symptoms remained strong.
“I am normally full of energy, exercise every single day for at least one hour and used to regularly play 18 holes of golf when the weather permitted,” he explained.
Sundaresh went to see a cardiologist fearing he was having heart problems, but that proved not to be the cause, as his heart was completely healthy. When the couple later took a trip in May, he remembered feeling increasingly tired, so much so that he had difficulty walking up the stairs.
When Sundaresh returned home, he contacted his internist again, concerned about what was happening to his body. Tests led to the internist advising Sundaresh to be admitted to a hospital for acute anemia where he was treated for it with a blood transfusion. While at the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy was conducted to see why his blood counts were so low, he recalled to India-West.
In June, less than a half year after retiring, Sundaresh was diagnosed with High Risk Myelodysplastic Syndrome, and he is now in need of a bone marrow transplant to survive.
High Risk MDS is a cancer that causes the bone marrow to stop making certain blood cells. Sundaresh’s bone marrow is unable to make red blood cells or platelets.
He has chemotherapy eight days a month, as well as blood transfusions once a week. That plan will last for the duration of his life if he doesn’t receive a bone marrow transplant.
In July, the Sundaresh family learned that the retired pediatrician doesn’t have a match on the Be the Match Registry nor does he have a match on any India-based registry. Learning that led to the family to be proactive.
“(Not having a match) is what inspired my daughter and my family to (launching) a series of drives focused in the South Asian population to encourage people to register to donate and hopefully find a match,” he said.
Though disappointed there were no matches, Sundaresh remained level-headed as he focuses on the initiative.
“Bone marrow matching is tied to one’s ethnic background and because there are so few minorities and South Asians who are in the registry, it is much harder for us to find a match,” he explained to India-West, stressing how important it is for Indians and South Asians to join the registry to open the door for the many people struggling, including himself.
Sundaresh’s daughter Neeti spearheaded the initiative, which she has dubbed “Swab for Sundaresh.” She said she initially felt mixed emotions for her father because he served so many people in the community for decades, including cancer patients, and now he’s on the other end of the equation without answers.
“And then we find out there are no donor matches,” Neeti told India-West. “That is when my sadness transitioned into something more proactive – I wanted to do something that could definitely help many people, and potentially my father.”
Neeti’s father explained how she organized drives to educate and inform the public about the importance of registering to be a donor, particularly minorities. Her hope, he said, was to find a match for him in the process of raising awareness about this important public health issue.
In two months, the team registered about 1,000 people. It takes months for the swabs to be processed so the family is still awaiting word on the results.
“I can safely say that once people understand there is a need for more people to register and after they are fully informed about what is required to register and potentially donate, most want to help,” Neeti said.
The Indian American patient remains positive despite not knowing what the future holds in terms of a match.
“You have to move forward and stay as positive as possible. Try not to fixate on the disease, although it is very difficult,” he told India-West. “When you are suddenly informed that your life will be drastically cut short, enjoy your remaining days and do your best to spend quality time with your friends and family,” Sundaresh said.
“I feel positive but I really want to find a match and have a transplant,” he added. “It is my only chance of survival.”
More information about the Be the Match Registry or to sign up for the registry on Sundaresh’s behalf can be found by visiting https://join.bethematch.org/Sundaresh.
“You can make a difference. You can save a life,” Neeti said. “Just do it.”