Stem cell transplant leads Ali to remission, and a new home

Ali, who had ALL, poses in his bedroom
Today, Ali is in remission, and he and his father live in Mansfield, Massachusetts

The journey that led Ali Mercy to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s began in 2010, when Ali was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). At that time, he was treated in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where his family lived.

Chemotherapy initially put Ali’s ALL into remission, but three years later, it returned — this time having metastasized to Ali’s central nervous system. Soon he could feel nothing below his waist and was using a wheelchair for mobility.

The 8-year-old needed a life-saving stem cell transplant, but the family learned that transplants were not performed in the UAE. The UAE government typically sent its citizens to Germany for that procedure, but because Ali’s father, Abrahim, was a native of India, he was denied such assistance.

“I was devastated,” says Abrahim. “I felt, at this point, there was nothing I could do to save him.”

Left on his own, Abrahim reached out to medical officials in Asia, Europe, and North America. Only one person was willing to help: Dr. Leslie Lehmann, clinical director of the Pediatric Stem Cell Transplant Center and medical director for international hematology/oncology and bone marrow transplants at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

“Dr. Lehmann immediately got back to me and said they would treat Ali,” recalls Abrahim.

Ali, who had a cord blood transplant for ALL, poses in the hospital with his father.
Abrahim and Ali traveled to Boston for Ali’s life-saving treatment in 2014

A memorable journey to Boston

The International Patient Services office at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s helped the Mercys in their transition to the United States, and in February 2014, father and son traveled the 6,600 miles from Dubai to Boston. It was their first time in the U.S., and Ali’s first plane ride. The mounds of white fluffy stuff they saw after their arrival also made a big impression — Ali had never seen snow.

Dr. Lehmann was true to her word. Although a perfect donor match could not be found for Ali, he had a successful cord blood transplant — using stem cells taken from an unrelated umbilical cord donor — on April 8, 2014. There were complications, including graft versus host disease (GVHD) and kidney trouble, but Ali’s leukemia eventually went into remission.

Care worth remembering

During Ali’s long post-transplant recovery time, Dr. Lehmann and other caregivers, including physician assistant Margaret Buonanno and nurse Kelli Sheehan, became like family. When he was isolated in his hospital room for four months due to his weakened immune system, they brought in games to play with him.

“Ali has such a beautiful and resilient spirit — he gave 100 percent effort towards his own recovery every day, and that inspired everyone one his team,” says Dr. Lehmann. “It is so wonderful to see him develop into a creative young adult who makes the world brighter for all those who know him.”

“The people there were just so friendly that after a couple weeks I didn’t feel as if I was in a hospital — I started to feel at home,” says Ali. “Along with my father, they made one of the most painful times of my life into something worth remembering.”

Growing up and giving back

Today things are looking up for Ali, who turned 15 just before Christmas. His ALL remains in remission, he is walking well, and he has developed a great love for crafting short stories and poetry (see below). He says that cancer has provided him with insight and maturity he believes will help him as a writer. He and his father now live in Mansfield, Massachusetts, where Ali attends high school.

His father has also gained a new perspective from what the two of them have gone through. The outpouring of support Ali has received from his Boston caregivers has compelled Abrahim to devote himself to helping other families impacted by cancer; he is now a member of the Pediatric Patient and Family Advisory Council at Dana-Farber, and passes on wisdom to new ALL parents through the One-to-One program.

When the Stars are Bright 
by Ali Mercy
When the stars are bright,
The details don’t matter.
When the stars are bright,
Wealth and status cannot flatter. 
Like beads of sunshine in a darkened room, 
All my problems, swept up by a magic broom. 
When the stars are bright, 
The future seems clearer. 
When the stars are bright, 
The whole world seems nearer. 
Shedding away the words of yesterday. 
It doesn’t what they do or say. 
When the stars are bright, 
The sky seems higher. 
When the stars are bright, 
Love burns like fire. 
I can feel your thoughts like the winter snow, 
Warming my skin with the slightest blow. 
Why won’t you shine on me today? 
Please don’t leave me and go away. 
When the stars are bright. 
When the stars are bright. 

“People need to know when they hear the word cancer, they should not panic,” says Abrahim. “Have faith, and have hope, and know places like Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s will be there for you.”

Learn more about the Pediatric Stem Cell Transplant Center.

Share this: