BALTIMORE -- When Sonia Su walked into her University of Maryland Medical Center hospital room for an 11-day cancer treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in March 2019, she was dreading the next week and a half and the fight she had ahead of her. However, in the familiar hospital room on her neatly made bed, there was a green package anticipating the Clarksville, Md., resident's arrival.
The package was from a survivor who stayed in that same cancer unit one year ago, a nurse told Su.
Su spent the 10 days that followed riding what she called "a huge roller coaster." She fought hard to beat her aggressive type of lymphoma, even spending her 26th birthday in the intensive care unit. Through it all, the care package that Su discovered upon check-in never left her mind.
"I knew that I needed to pay the kindness forward one day," she said.
What once was a kind gesture from a cancer survivor is now Su's livelihood. She took that idea and founded the nonprofit Kits to Heart, delivering care packages to cancer patients in area hospitals.
"Events like these in your life totally change your perspective," said Su, now 27.
During her spring semester at Georgetown University this year, working toward a master's degree in Asian studies, Su took three entrepreneurship classes and then participated in the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge, a schoolwide business competition that she compared to "Shark Tank."
Jeff Reid, a professor and founding director of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge, said the program is the largest offered for aspiring entrepreneurs at Georgetown.
Su was among 80 students who participated in the 2020 competition, ultimately advancing to the finals and winning second place. And that was how Su said she could repay the kindness she received during her cancer treatment.
THREE MAIN PROBLEMS
In her proposal, Su outlined the three main problems she wanted to address with her kits: the loneliness of the cancer journey, the lack of knowledge friends and family have on how to assist cancer patients, and the inadequate materials and resources patients receive from hospitals.
Kalpesh Patel, an entrepreneur and angel investor who lives in Virginia, was a judge at the competition and saw Su present her idea.
"Pitches are similar in terms of how people present, but you can see soul in the presentations and that was something that you could see in Sonia," Patel said. "I was drawn to her sheer passion for this effort. She has gone through a pretty rough time. Despite that, when she was pitching, it was cheerful and very positive. (She wanted) to make a difference in people's lives."
Patel now serves as a board member for Kits to Heart, mentoring Su through the difficulties of starting and running a nonprofit.
"The entrepreneurs who have the ability to succeed are the ones who really believe in what they are doing," Patel said.
With her time at Georgetown completed, Su has brought the idea of Kits to Heart into fruition, getting kits to as many hospitals as she can, as quickly as she can.
Su's efforts have mainly gone to in-person delivery of kits to area hospitals, but the organization has also shipped directly to individuals who have requested. Since May, Kits to Heart has delivered 390 kits to 43 states and five area hospitals, including the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, Md.
Others include the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Hackerman-Patz Patient and Family Pavilion at Johns Hopkins Hospital, both in Baltimore; the DeCesaris Cancer Institute at the Anne Arundel Medical Center; and the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center at Green Spring Station in Lutherville-Timonium.
CANCER TREATMENT ESSENTIALS
The kits are composed of cancer treatment essentials, according to Su. She combines the resources she found helpful during her cancer journey with the resources she wishes she had by her side. Each kit includes some combination of: ginger chews (a common tool for reducing nausea caused by chemotherapy), hand sanitizer, SPF lotion (cancer patients often have more sensitive skin after cancer treatments), reusable water bottles, washable cloth masks, notebooks, snacks, informational pamphlets, and hand-made cards or origami.
Fourteen companies have donated products to help fill the kits thus far. Su has used the proceeds from the Georgetown competition, grant money, and donations from friends and family to continue building the kits.
Laurie Waldo, clinical social work team lead at the University of Maryland Medical Center, has accepted Kits to Heart for cancer patients where she works. While hospital donations are fairly common, the consistency of Kits to Heart is unique, she said.
"For most cancer diagnoses, the treatment is often very intense," Waldo said. "People are sometimes coming to the hospital five days a week. It's like a job; they may be spending all day here. Outside of what a cancer diagnosis means and how scary that is, it's also logistically challenging."
Waldo said Su understanding those challenges is what has made Kits to Heart effective. For example, practical items like journals have helped patients keep track of symptoms and medications they're taking.
"For the average person to keep up with the medication and the treatments, it's very intense," Waldo said. "For some of our patients they wouldn't have the means to purchase these 'extras.' It's nice to be able to provide them (with) something that's tangible and high-quality and really well thought-out."
REACHED OUT TO HELP
The hand-made portions of the kits have been collected through volunteer efforts, some sewing masks and some making cards. Su said summer camps and students looking to complete their student service learning hours have reached out to help personalize each kit.
"We also have had more than 350 volunteers throughout Maryland contribute more than 2,350 volunteer hours so far. They've been writing inspiring cards, making beautiful origami, crafting friendship bracelets, making cloth face masks and crocheting bags," Su said.
Frank Kenny, a recent Swarthmore College graduate, works as a volunteer coordinator for Kits to Heart. After returning home from school, Kenny said he wanted to spend some time volunteering and a friend referred him to Su.
Kenny coordinates the volunteer work in Montgomery County. He keeps track of what volunteers are making and what deadlines they need to meet. Whether it's origami, crochet bags or masks, Kenny ensures that each kit has a personalized touch.
"(There is an) overwhelming amount of interest compared to capacity Sonia has to get these kits off to hospitals," Kenny said.
Su was hoping to deliver her 400th kit two weeks ago, continuing her work in helping as many cancer patients as she can.
"Sonia is a great example of someone who didn't set out to be an entrepreneur. She just set out to solve a problem," Reid said. "The next thing you know, she's created an organizations that's mobilized. She's created ... an organization that made a huge impact. That's what entrepreneurs do."