2011-11-03

Co.Exist

Amit Gupta's Social Media-Fueled Battle With Leukemia Reverberates Around The World

Amit Gupta needed a bone marrow transplant, but he is also Indian, and there are very few Indian bone marrow donors. What happened next won’t just end up helping him, but millions of South Asian cancer patients worldwide.

Amit Gupta, the 32-year-old founder of Photojojo, is battling acute myeloid leukemia. His journey to health is being hindered by a startling problem: Only one percent of the members of the National Marrow Donor Program are South Asian, which means Gupta has a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a match.

You may have heard this all before. In the past month, Gupta’s story has sparked countless tweets, Facebook posts, articles, donor drives, and even a $30,000 reward for finding a bone marrow match, courtesy of Gupta’s wealthier friends. It’s a powerful example of how social media can make lasting, life-saving change—not just for one man, but for an entire population in need of bone marrow.

It’s not hard to see why Gupta’s story initially took off; a longtime Internet entrepreneur, he is well-connected (and well-liked) in the social media scene. Gupta originally posted the news about his lack of potential bone marrow matches, but he had no idea how big his story would become.

"I’m no stranger to social media or marketing—we rely heavily on positive worth of mouth to spread the word about Photojojo—but I’ve been caught completely off-guard by how far this has spread and the longevity of it," Gupta tells Co.Exist in an email. "The online news cycle is typically so brief, I never could have hoped for more than a few days of attention. To be the subject of something that’s only been growing in intensity over the past few weeks has been eye-opening."

The Amit Gupta Needs You movement has grown far beyond Gupta’s circle of friends. Gupta told us that an Indian resident on his leukemia floor at Yale New-Haven Hospital called him one evening to ask what was going on, because he had received a Facebook message from a college friend asking him and 50 other Indians to join the bone marrow registry. The Photojojo founder also learned of bone marrow drives at Indian student groups on college campuses, and in Diwali celebrations at Indian temples.

"For leukemia patients of other ethnicities, if the U.S. registry doesn’t contain a match, often the registry in their native country will. India has no national registry so that’s not an option for Indians in America—we’re hoping that with our efforts and the kind donations of many we can give one of the fledgling registries in that country (Datri, started by an Indian entrepreneur who has also spent years in the U.S.) a big boost," explains Gupta.

Jessa Kalani, the organizer of Gupta’s U.S. and Canadian drives, tell us that there are 50 drives planned specifically for the Photojojo founder all over the U.S., as well as a handful in India. At each drive, between 20 and 150 people have registered, even though it costs $50 a pop. According to Gupta, the Be The Match Marrow Registry has had more traffic in the past few weeks than in its entire history.

"When the real-world actions of people going to drives started happening in numbers, it fed back into the online buzz. And when the issue became one of the lack of Indian and South Asian minority donors, and I became a symbol of that problem, but not the problem itself, it really took off," says Gupta.

Gupta is still waiting for a match, and his doctors want to give him a bone marrow transplant by mid-December. "I don’t have any confirmed matches yet, but have some imperfect possible matches that will hopefully pan out when they do a deeper search and evaluation and be good backup options," says Gupta. In the meantime, the newly joined bone marrow registry members who don’t match Amit may save another life—one rescued by the goodness of the Internet.

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