Desperate for a bone marrow donor, Nalini Ambady finally caves in to leukemia

A nine-year battle ends in a hospital in Boston.

By Deepak Chitnis

naliniWASHINGTON, DC: Stanford University professor Nalini Ambady, who had been battling leukemia for the past several years, passed away in the early hours of October 29.

Ambady passed away at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment and palliative care. She had been in and out of various hospitals for years, after being diagnosed with leukemia in early 2004.

She had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). What it means, essentially, is that the bone marrow – which is responsible to produce white blood cells, the cells that help fight off infection and keep people health – starts producing abnormal white blood cells, which consequently aren’t able to effectively protect the body against harmful illnesses.

The only way to treat the disease is to receive a bone marrow transplant. Ambady and her husband Raj – a lawyer at a major Boston law firm who himself suffered from cancer of the kidney, from which he recovered – searched extensively for a potential bone marrow donor. South Asians in particular (specifically those from Kerala, South India, and India, in that order of preference) were encouraged to sign up and join the bone marrow registry, as those of the same ethnicity are more likely to be a compatible donor match.

When initially diagnosed, Ambady underwent therapy and sent the cancer into remission. She was thought to be rid of AML. But last year, right around Thanksgiving, she learned that the cancer had returned in a far more potent form, thus prompting a new effort to find a donor and cure her once and for all.

Thirteen potential matches were found for Ambady, including several that were willing to actually donate marrow. Unfortunately, several backed out for various reasons. One donor in Boston was found but could not undergo the transplant procedure because of low platelet count. Over the past several weeks, she began to lose her battle against the disease, with many of her organs failing one by one.

A native of Kerala, Ambady went to college at the Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi. She then earned her master’s degree in psychology from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1991, she earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in social psychology. She has been on the faculty at such esteemed academic institutions as Harvard and Tufts University. Two years ago, she accepted a position at Stanford University, as a professor in their Department of Psychology.

Ambady is survived by her two daughters, Maya and Leena, as well as her husband Raj.

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