The young couple and their son hung about, sort of at the edge of my field of vision. I was explaining the process of swabbing your cheek – ten times clockwise, ten times anticlockwise, five times back and forth, repeat – to a stream of potential bone marrow donors. It was several minutes before there was a gap and I was able to turn to the couple; by now the son had wandered off by himself and was looking at a chart on the wall.
"He needs a donor too," they told me, pointing to the son, a wiry 9-year-old wearing a yellow t-shirt. "We're now searching for one in Germany." But what about here in India? "Haven't found one yet."
Had this family come here hoping for some kind of help from us in finding a donor for the son? But surely they knew that this was just a drive? Just a place where potential donors signed up? They must have seen the question in my eyes, because she quickly added, "We've come to see if we can be donors."
So here it is. The boy has an impossibly rare disease that will eventually turn into leukemia. His best hope is to find a bone marrow donor. His parents got themselves tested to see if either could donate their cells to him. Neither matched. But they have their so-called HLA reports. When they heard about our efforts to find a donor for Nalini Ambady, they travelled across Bombay to get here, son along for the trip, to see if either of them could be a match for Nalini.
"You see, we too found a donor," said the mother, Kavita. "Just like with Nalini. But he backed out too. So we came to meet you."
Call me a crybaby. I couldn't push away the lump that rose in my throat.
As a student and later as faculty, Nalini Ambady has attended a string of some of India's and the world's best-known educational institutions. The Lawrence School, Lovedale; Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi; The College of William and Mary, Virginia; Harvard University, Cambridge; College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts; Tufts University, Boston; Stanford University, California.
As these things go, that list by itself says substantial things about the kind of person this is. But there's more than just distinguished institutions.
Ann Ninan, a Lawrence School classmate, told me that Nalini was a "natural actor [whose] interpretation of the formidable Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, the school play in our final year, had the audience cheering on its feet."
In 1993, Nalini won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize for Behavioral Science Research. President Bill Clinton gave her the National Science Foundation's Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for 1998, "for fundamental contributions to understanding accuracy of social judgments based on 'thin slices' of information and development of undergraduate and graduate courses on related topics." Some years later, Malcolm Gladwell wrote his bestseller Blink about the implications of these thin slices; in fact, his first chapter is called The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way". "Nalini Ambady's research," he wrote, "showed how much we can learn about a surgeon's likelihood of being sued if we get beyond the diplomas on the wall and the white coat and focus" – ready for this? – "on his or her tone of voice."
I got to know Nalini separate from her awards and recognition. I first met her because of one of my closest school friends from Bombay, Raj Marphatia. A stellar student himself, Raj was chasing a law degree at Harvard in the mid-1980s. Nalini was at Harvard too, in the middle of a PhD in psychology. Someone introduced them, they began dating, and were married in 1988.
One November soon after, I spent a long weekend with them in Boston. There was a massive pizza party in Nalini's poky graduate student digs. Raj was always partial to pizza from some nearby dive, and Nalini had become a convert. Another long weekend was in Puerto Rico, where Raj was working with a judge. We spent a day driving along La Ruta Panoramica, twisting through the hills in the centre of the island. Inevitably, I got car sick. We stopped and, like magic, Nalini produced a large orange. "Sniff the peel!" she ordered. "You'll feel better." I did, and like magic, I did.
Later, they were the first friends my wife and I informed when we decided to marry. In 1994, we began our honeymoon at their home outside Boston, smack in the middle of the coldest winter in years. We even dressed up and attended the function where the AAAS awarded her that Advancement of Science Prize.
In May 2004, we visited them in Boston again. By now they had two daughters, 10-year-old Maya and seven- year-old Leena. While we were there, some startling, sobering news: Raj was diagnosed with cancer in his kidney. He was successfully treated – his kidney was removed and he returned home to recuperate. Less than a month later, cue still more sobering news. Nalini was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
Husband and wife, stricken with cancer within weeks of each other: what are the odds?
Amazingly, both made swift and complete recoveries. By the beginning of 2005, they were back at their jobs: Raj as a partner in the major Boston law firm, Ropes & Gray, Nalini as a tenured professor at Tufts University. Several healthy, happy years followed: the girls grew into young women; Nalini taught at the Tufts summer school in France. In 2011, Stanford offered her a position. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. That year, the family moved to California.
Fast forward a year. Thanksgiving weekend, November 2012: Nalini had laid on a Thanksgiving feast for her students who were not able to return home to their families. Raj was in Bombay to visit his parents.
As he usually does, he stopped at our home for dinner on his last night and I drove him to the airport afterwards. Close to 24 hours later, he got off the plane in San Francisco to hear that Nalini's AML had returned, in a significantly more aggressive, virulent form.
Despite just receiving the news, Nalini had her students over as planned, even though she could not eat what she had made for them.
Please go to www.helpnalininow.org to help Nalini Ambady and others.
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