If you are lucky enough to meet Letlhonololo “Tlhogi” Maseko you will think he is like many other 15-year old boys at St Alban’s College in Pretoria. Full of hope and promise, good-looking with a bright and ready smile, obviously intelligent and very eloquent. He loves reading, watching television, music, especially rap, which he writes himself. So talented and passionate about his rap-writing, that he was about to record his first song in a studio during the school holidays. Tlhogi also loves school, but only when he is healthy enough to attend school. He completed the first term of Grade 8 in 2006, and is trying again this year to complete the grade, a milestone in a young life where every day is an important milestone.
Tlhogi has leukaemia. He needs a bone marrow stem cell transplant.
For this he needs to find a healthy and perfectly matching donor. As there is a current shortage of black donors on the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), his chances are slim, unless new black donors come forward in large numbers as a potential match. The only possible matches are always in the same ethnic group. Ethnic origin is very important when matching donors and patients. The ‘markers’ that are tested when searching for a match are genetically inherited and often unique to a particular race. His eight-year old sister, Tshegofatso, was tested last year, after he was diagnosed, but was unfortunately not a suitable match. It was an Easter weekend the family will never forget.
At the end of the first term last year that he was tired, ridiculously tired. On an outing to a museum with his school, he was barely able to stand. The medical staff at school spotted an abscess under his right arm. He was anaemic and pale, and after a month’s course of iron tablets, this young boarder underwent blood tests on the Thursday before Easter. On the Friday his parents were called, to be told that he had to undergo a bone marrow biopsy, and they were then given the devastating news. By Saturday his mother, Neo, felt she could not function. His first bout of treatment involved an autologous stem cell transplant, which means he was treated with his own stem cells. This transplant put him into remission for six months. All was going well, he was about to complete the second term of 2007 when, just before his exams the Maseko family were given the heartbreaking news that the leukaemia had returned.
“I knew nothing of leukaemia when I was diagnosed. Now, I could write a book”. Tlhogi shows an above-average interest in the machinery surrounding his hospital bed, and knows every detail of every procedure, but is adamant that he will not be persuaded to follow a career in medicine. When asked what the first thing is he will do when he gets out of hospital, he replies with a broad grin – “eat, eat food. Preferably my mom’s food, cooked with love.” Tlhogi is presently on a drip, lying in a bed at the Faerie Glen Hospital where he is taunted watching KFC advertisements on television.
His father, Baker MJ Maseko is a charismatic and successful businessman who spent years heading up a large advertising agency. He knows the value of publicity. “Whilst a family in our situation may prefer privacy, we realize there is no alternative – by telling Tlhogi’s story we can save his life, and others.” Baker has been the one to give strength to family and friends when the news of Tlhogi’s relapse was made known. He spends time and energy quelling family emotions. He is the rock in a hard place. Dr. Maseko, who has her own dental practice, is reeling from the emotional pain of having a terminally ill son. Tlhogi’s sister has a hard time with the fact that she is too young to visit him in hospital, but they connect telephonically. He and his friends sms one another, and when they can, they visit.
As bone marrow donors have to be between 18 and 50 years old, many of them cannot become donors. But you can be sure they will be donning bandanas in support of The Sunflower Fund Bandana Day on 21 September. Funds raised through National Bandana Day assist The Sunflower Fund pay for the necessary blood tests to put new donors on the Registry to help patients like Tlhogi and the many others suffering from leukaemia and other life-threatening blood disorders.
You too can help, by buying a bandana and becoming a donor.
In the words of Tlhogi, “A small thing can go a long way. Just by giving blood you can save a life”.
So spare a little – just two tubes of blood are needed to join the South African Bone Marrow Registry to see if you could be a potential match for Tlhogi, or another.