Published on June 21, 2021
NHL Survivor Pays Forward Kindness With Kits to Heart
At the age of 25, Georgetown University graduate student Sonia Su prepared for her third-line treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system and can create tumors.
The first two rounds of chemotherapy didn’t eradicate her cancer. Su’s next step was to try a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, which is a way to harness the immune system to treat her form of cancer using the patient’s own T cells by re-engineering them and returning them to the body. This type of therapy basically brings the immune system down to zero and builds it back up. Patients frequently feel worse before they feel better, provided that the therapy works. Fortunately, in Su’s case, the treatment was successful. But at the time, this third round of treatment was a roll of the dice.
“I felt hopeless and exhausted. My tumor had failed to respond to two previous lines of treatment, and this CAR T-cell treatment only had a 50 percent chance of working,” Su recalled.
Weak from prior therapies, Su’s mother helped her walk down the hall to her room where she would stay for 11 days.
Preparing for an unknown future, she readied herself for the next step when she discovered a surprise in her room at the University of Maryland Medical Center: a gift package that contained encouraging notes and snacks.
From despondence sprang a feeling of hope.
Someone else who had been in a similar frightening medical situation a year earlier had made the effort to reach out to patients to spread some positivity.
“When I saw the care package left on my bed by a former patient who was doing well again, it motivated me to keep going and inspired me to pay forward the kindness,” Su said.
Launching Kits to Heart
Su completed her grueling treatment with a full recovery. Then, after returning to school at Georgetown for a Master of Arts in Asian Studies, she took several entrepreneur courses and used that knowledge to begin her own care package program for cancer patients. That led to her participation in two competitions: the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge in the spring of 2020 and the Bark Tank (similar to “Shark Tank”) in October of 2020.
Kits to Heart made it in the top eight finalists in the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge and won second place in its division, which gave Su $2,500 to continue building the program. The judges loved the mission behind Kits to Heart and this encouraged Su to keep moving forward. Soon after, she launched Kits to Heart, whose mission is to bring smiles, alleviate stress, and provide psychosocial support for patients across the United States.
Su went directly from the competitions into incorporating Kits to Heart as an official non-profit, partnering with local companies that donate food and supplies, like protein shakes and hand lotion, to include in the care boxes. With the help of her family and volunteers, she’s been able to donate care packages in most states in the United States, focusing on cancer clinics and hospitals that treat patients with cancer.
Many cancer patients undergo regular medical care, but oftentimes it’s the non-medical care that can improve moods and overall well-being. Patients have reported that writing, interacting with other patients in support groups, and spreading the word through advocacy have improved their emotional outlooks.
The testimonials that the program receives exemplify how people with cancer feel when opening the care packages.
“Today I got a package in the mail. I have already cried 3 times since I received it, and I will cry more. Happy tears. Grateful tears,” wrote Alex D. in a Kits to Heart Facebook testimonial.
Curated Cancer Care
Patients with cancer have physical, emotional, and psychological needs and these kits are created with those needs in mind. Through the cancer care kit, Kits to Heart offers both material and psychosocial support to help alleviate stress and reduce anxiety.
Kits to Heart boxes include combinations of comfort items: face masks, hand sanitizer, a reusable water bottle, a journal (for tracking appointments and symptoms or simply doodling), ginger chews and ginger tea (to calm nausea), healthy protein snacks, vegan lotion and lip balm (to combat dry skin), a heart pillow (to serve as a protective barrier between the seat belt and surgical chest wounds), origami and handwritten cards (for joy and encouragement), handmade blankets, and more.
“Each item is curated with purpose by a three-time cancer alumna and made with love — thanks to hundreds of passionate volunteers and donors. We also stand out with our ability to mobilize wide community support to add unique personal touches to each kit,” Su said.
Combating Financial Toxicity, One Box at a Time
Su emphasizes that the kits are available at no cost to the patients, running on a pay-what-you-can model.
“This ensures greater accessibility, considering the already financially toxic nature of cancer treatments,” she said.
This non-profit accepts donations, holds fundraisers, and sells merchandise on the Kits to Heart website to generate revenue and keep costs low.
No COVID-19 Slow Down
COVID-19 changed the day-to-day operation of Kits to Heart, which is an all-volunteer-run organization.
“We work with more than 1,000 remote volunteers, while daily operations during COVID-19 has been just me and my family. The vaccine roll-out means we are hopeful for volunteers finally being able to join us in-person this summer to help assemble and deliver the kits,” she said.
Kits to Heart has delivered more than 1,200 boxes to patients since its inception.
Now, Su is a cancer survivor at age 28 and is in good health. She continues to pay it forward with gratitude.
“Nowadays, I am feeling well and grateful to be able to do what I do. I receive joy by giving joy. Thanks to our incredible supporters, our efforts during this pandemic and beyond continue to make a difference for those undergoing difficult times,” she said.
Individuals can request kits on their website at kitstoheart.org. Hospital staff can email Su directly to request in-person deliveries.
The future is bright for Su. Her work has been celebrated widely, featured on several local television shows, and she is getting ready to work for Kits to Heart full-time. Kits to Heart welcomes donations, and also volunteers who can participate remotely or in person.
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