Twenty-year-old Tashnika Rambali was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia when she was just 18, a diagnosis that threw her future into an uncertain spin.
Now, the Durban-based biotechnology student has teamed up with the South African National Blood Services (SANBS) to raise awareness about blood and bone marrow donation.
Shortly before starting another round of chemotherapy this week, Rambali said there was a negative perception about the bone marrow donation procedure, which was vital for cancer treatment.
“It is not painful at all. When people hear bone marrow, they think of the bone being drilled. It is not like that at all. It is actually very similar to giving blood. The difference is that they extract stem cells from the blood. It is pain free and so simple,” she said.
Rambali said she decided to initiate a blood drive when she was diagnosed in 2014.
“At the end of 2014 there was a major shortage and this worried me and my doctors. My doctor had explained how dire the situation was and that so many people were being turned away because of the minimal blood supply.
“While in hospital, I asked my mum what stopped us from having a blood drive. That’s when the ball started rolling. We had our first blood drive two weeks later alerting many of our family and friends and managed to get 107 pints.
“Once we put it on social media, the response was phenomenal. Everyone saw my condition and wanted to help and this was the perfect way to get people to contribute.”
Rambali also required a positive bone marrow donor after discovering her brother was not a match.
According to Rambali, her chance of receiving a donor was one in 100 000. Bone marrow donors also have to be an ethnic match.
“The registry for bone marrow donors is not even at the 100 000 mark nationally and there aren’t many Indian people who are on it. I am hoping I can just spread awareness and help people realise that blood and bone marrow donation will save lives. It is so important,” said Rambali.
Speaking about her experience going into adult life with her condition Rambali said her perspective was unique.
“I think that going through something like this has opened me up to so much about life. While at hospital, I befriended three people who have since passed on. It was extremely difficult for me to lose these people.
“Some of them were younger than me. They were 16, 18 and 20. Our families had connected and we supported each other. I’ve realised that you cannot take life for granted.”
Rambali said she still had the youthful desire to go out and have fun, but always had to be mindful of public places.
“I would love to do things people my age do and I do sometimes hassle my parents, but I know my condition affects my immune system. I try not to be negative and just appreciate what I have.”
Rambali said despite all her challenges, her main goal was still to spread awareness.
“When I meet people, they tell me I am inspirational or brave. But I want to tell people they can be inspirational and brave. Your one pint of blood saves three lives. I want people out there to know they should become donors and possibly save an entire life. Nothing is better than saving a life.
“I want everyone to encourage people they know to just try to get people to donate. It is the biggest assistance you can give to somebody in a situation like mine.”
How can you assist?
SANBS spokesperson, Vanessa Raju, said blood donation was vital for treatment plans for patients like Rambali.
“There are minimum requirements to become a blood donor. You have to be between the ages of 16-65 years, you should be a minimum of 50kgs, in good health and live a sexually safe lifestyle.
“When you donate blood, you can also inform the Blood Service that you would like to sign up as a bone marrow donor, prior to doing so you can contact the Sunflower Fund and get a form that you would need to complete and bring along to your donation.”
According to Raju, Rambali was a patient like thousands of others who received blood.
“But this brave and bold young lady together with her family realised that the communities we live in do not understand how important it is to donate blood. As a recipient she knows what it meant to her survival and so they embarked on sharing this important message of donating blood.”
Raju said SANBS faced a number of challenges with blood and bone marrow donors.
“People are not well informed and all efforts made by SANBS and the bone marrow foundations often fall on deaf ears until there is a personal impact of a loved one or someone in your immediate community. Tashnika and her family have [made] efforts to improve this within their community.”
Raju said the SANBS is reliant on the public to become involved in donating blood. She said that without the voluntary blood donation the organisation was unable to ensure that there was adequate blood available in the country.
She said the lack of blood donors could see a particular impact over a period like the Easter holidays.
“Our call is to those who meet the requirements to come through and donate blood, and to donate once every 56 days or a minimum of four times a year.”