Helen Huynh was getting ready for a spinal tap on a recent morning at City of Hope hospital in Duarte. It was one of many tests she'll have to undergo in the coming days so that doctors can determine whether her body is healthy enough to receive a stem cell transplant.
Huynh, 61, complained to her daughter about being tired. She had dark circles under her eyes and her hair was sparse from chemotherapy. In contrast, a photo of Huynh from May shows her smiling radiantly, holding her grandson.
Huynh's daughter Yvonne Murray said the last year has been a rollercoaster for the family — because of the aggressive leukemia invading her mom’s body, but also because of the often fickle immigration system that has made it harder for her mom to seize the best chance she has at survival.
In June, Huynh’s sister, Thuy Nguyen, who lives in Vietnam, was identified as a perfect stem cell donor for her sick sister. Nguyen immediately applied for a U.S. visa to do the transplant. But her application was denied after an interview at the U.S. Consulate in Vietnam, according to Murray.
It was denied twice again after that, Murray said. The family began to approach media outlets and congressional representatives with Huynh’s story in hopes of putting pressure on U.S. authorities to allow Nguyen into the country to donate stem cells to her sister.
In late September, Nguyen was finally granted "humanitarian parole," which allows individuals into the U.S. for a limited period of time in an emergency situation.
“We’re not celebrating yet,” Murray said. “My aunt’s here, [but] that’s only half of the battle. The other part is whether my mom is still in shape for the transplant.”
The stem cell transplant can only be done if Huynh’s cancer is in remission. A barrage of tests in the coming days will determine that.
Huynh’s cancer had gone into remission twice since her sister first applied to come to the U.S. to help her sister. Murray said getting her aunt here has been a long, frustrating and expensive process.
"And it could have been prevented,” she said.
Murray said after her family’s experience, she wants to work to reform the U.S. visa system to make sure people like her aunt who are attending to medical emergencies are given priority.
The family should know by mid-October whether a stem cell transplant is possible.
Huynh said, in Vietnamese and through tears, that her sister’s arrival had renewed her hope of beating the cancer.