Creating Meaning

"The struggle of whether to try to completely assimilate or to be alienated and really run with what makes you different—that tension is the genesis of any sort of meaningful creation." —Kate McKinnon, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner: Season 1

Growing up as the daughter of immigrants, who worked nonstop running their own business, I had no intentions to start my own. Every day, I witnessed the lack of work-life balance permeating our family's lives, all as part of the struggle to provide for me and my sister.

In fact, to this day, every night except on Saturdays, their phones would ring, as they drop their chopsticks mid-bite to answer calls and scribble down the orders for the next day—when my father would wake up at 4 a.m. to work at the warehouse.

It is because of their sacrifices that my sister and I were able to attend and graduate college, living with the stability that they never had in China. Around 2015, while my sister was pursuing her dreams in fashion, I was still trying to figure out mine. Similar to some other diaspora children, I spent some time in Asia, falling in love with the three Cs: convenience, culture, and cuisine. Eventually I decided on graduate school. The idea was to develop my interests and experience in media with those of Asian history, society, and culture.

In 2018, however, just as I was settling in after completing my first semester of graduate school, another C entered my life—cancer.

Bald Sonia

By 2019, two lines of treatment failed to eradicate my stubborn tumor. I was losing hope, and I did not dare to ask how my parents felt. I liked to think that their lifelong determination to provide for us carried us all forward. Even with my hair losses, to avoid befalling news of my cancer diagnosis to more innocent hairdressers, my mother took matters into her own hands and shaved my head the second and third times.

With everything, my parents found their own ways to cope and understand what could not be understood. When the English medical jargon went above their heads and nice translators only prolonged confusion, my parents sought second opinions from the Chinese-speaking private practice oncologist who had treated my grandfather. After several visits with the oncologist repeating what I had already known, my parents managed to consult with the oncologist without me, as part of their never-ending quest to find the cure.

Because of these visits and their own research, they knew about CAR T-cell therapy before I did. I remember after one visit, they handed me a colorful CAR T-cell pamphlet that this Chinese oncologist gave them. I took a cursory look and tossed it aside. It had only been FDA-approved a year prior, as a third-line treatment for those who had failed others. In other words, it was the last resort.

Somehow, we ended up having to use this last resort. The hospital I had been treated at did not even offer this treatment—it being so new. (Instead, the horrifying plan was to continue with more chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant.) A previous consultation at the National Institutes of Health told me that if I ever had to consider it, I could go to another hospital that had already been administering CAR T-cell to their first patients.

And so I transferred hospitals and was given a similar CAR T-cell pamphlet describing its use, side effects, and clinical trial results (~50% seemed to be fantastic odds at the time). Even during these times, my parents never stopped working to ensure my future, and it was paying off. CAR T-cell seemed too good to be true. In short, rather than several cycles of chemotherapy, CAR T-cell's magic was re-engineering our own blood to attack and kill the cancerous cells. One hospital stay, albeit including days in the ICU due to its neurological toxicities that makes one temporarily forget themselves, could mean no more cancer.

As you can guess, it worked. The day that I was admitted for CAR T-cell, I saw a care package that was left on my bed from a former patient. The idea that someone who had been there and took the time to prepare the gifts meant so much to me. Having been lifted from total despair, I told myself that I would pay the kindness forward once I was well again, too. This gift gave me the motivation to keep going and the inspiration to start Kits to Heart.

During my final semester of graduate school (oh, yes, after one year on leave to survive, I returned to complete my degree during the pandemic), I took entrepreneurship courses to develop this idea. I had always been interested in startups, having covered Boston's startup ecosystem during undergrad, but the idea of starting something of my own ultimately was born out of a mission to provide support to those suffering from cancer—a mission especially critical during a pandemic.

I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, I technically had a business plan, thanks to a required class project. But to turn those plans into reality? A whole different beast.

Plan or not, the important thing was that I got straight to work and learned as I went—not so dissimilar to how I imagine my parents got started. I sought validation and initial funding through school pitch competitions. By the end of 2020, Kits to Heart had raised over $70,000 in cash and in-kind donations for the cancer care kits and distributed them to hospitals throughout Maryland and D.C., as well as shipped kits to patients in nearly all 50 U.S. states. We received media coverage from The Baltimore Sun and other local media outlets.

This year, I started working with interns and in-person volunteers to expand our efforts. Once more people received the COVID-19 vaccines over the summer, I began inviting volunteers to assist with assembling the cancer care kits. Because of their help and the continued work of remote volunteers mailing in or dropping off handmade items (e.g., face masks, blankets, art journals), more than 2,400 families affected by cancer have been able to receive material and psychosocial support.

The ongoing pandemic does limit our efforts to hold fundraising events, and working from my parents’ basement means the few open slots for weekend volunteering fill up almost immediately. But these challenges only make me work harder on our mission. Just this month, Kits to Heart received funding to support a new art therapy program and the honor of the 2021 Hometown Hero Governor’s Service Award.

Sonia Su and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

The in-person award ceremony with the governor in attendance, along with other amazing honorees, felt truly special. It was the first time I could have my family and some of our strongest supporters join us to celebrate all the work we have done in this past year and half. My heart was so full. The pinnacle of this all was knowing that my parents were proud of me, rather than worried sick over my being sick.

Although I admit I have not (yet) achieved much work-life balance while running a nonprofit during a pandemic, it has been a welcome chaos of busy and deeply fulfilling times. I have so much to be grateful for, including being alive and finding what gives my life meaning. Above all, I owe everything to my parents for their unwavering support, hope, and love.

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