IN THE NEWS ~ Burnaby man with leukemia needs transplant to survive

Stem cell donor from Pakistan can’t help brother
Burnaby man with leukemia needs transplant to survive

By DARAH HANSEN, Vancouver Sun

Azeem Ahmed Khan, 47, waits for his sister Zahida Haroon, who is in Pakistan, to be granted a visa so she can come to Canada and be a donor and help cure the leukemia that is ravaging his body.
Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNGSixteen years ago, Azeem Ahmed Khan found safety in Canada as a political refugee from his native Pakistan.

Now the 47-year-old Burnaby father of three is asking his adopted country to come to his rescue again and allow his sister to travel to Vancouver in time to save his life.

Khan was diagnosed in July with acute myeloid leukemia. His best hope for survival is to undergo an immediate stem cell transplant.

Khan’s sister, Zahida Haroon, is a donor match and the elder sibling is ready and willing to undergo the procedure at Vancouver General Hospital.

But Haroon is in Pakistan and, so far, her repeated requests to Canadian embassy officials in Islamabad to grant her a temporary visitor’s visa have gone unanswered.

Without the visa, Haroon is unable to make the trip.

Meanwhile, Khan’s chances of beating the cancer decrease with every day he waits for the procedure.

“It’s stressful,” a weakened Khan said while recovering from another gruelling round of chemotherapy Monday.

“We have waited more than one month, and two times we send the letters and they [the government] don’t give us an answer,” he said.

Khan’s physician, VGH hematologist Dr. Donna Forrest, said donor requests for visitor visas are not uncommon in British Columbia.

VGH performs about 200 stem cell transplants every year, with many patients requiring relatives to fly in from abroad to undergo the procedure.

“We have a greater experience of that because we have such a vast ethnic population here,” Forrest said.

Typically, visa applications — which are supported by medical reports and doctors’ letters outlining the urgency of the situation — are granted within two weeks.

But the hospital has noted delays, and in some cases outright refusals, when the donor in question is coming from politically charged nations such as Pakistan or Iran.

In 2008, 52-year-old leukemia patient Mehrnoush (Mary) Maroufkhani of Burnaby contacted The Vancouver Sun after her sister was denied a visitor’s visa from the Canadian embassy in Tehran.

Like Khan, Maroufkhani was told she would die without a stem cell transplant.

Embassy officials were told about the urgency of the situation, but initially refused the request on the grounds the sister might not return to Iran when her visa ran out.

After phone calls from the newspaper to immigration officials, however, the government reversed its decision and Maroufkhani’s procedure was successfully performed in October 2008.

The Khan family is desperately hoping for a similar happy ending.

Peter Julian, New Democrat member of Parliament for Burnaby-New Westminster, said his office has sent three letters to the Canadian embassy in Islamabad urging officials to help the family.

Julian said Haroon, who heads a family of six children and several grandchildren, has strong connections to Pakistan, adding she is requesting only two weeks leave to Canada.

“There should be no problem in approving the visa,” he said.

Haroon is also pushing her case as best she can from her home in Karachi and has been told her application is “in process,” said Naureen Azeem, Khan’s wife.

Beverly Biggs, a social worker at VGH who works with leukemia patients, said the case may be complicated by Khan’s ambiguous status as a convention refugee in Canada.

“I don’t know if that raises any flags ... but you would think someone would let them know that,” she said.

What is certain is that this is “literally a matter of life and death,” said Biggs.

Forrest said Khan has only one other option if his sister’s visitor’s visa is denied or hopelessly delayed.

A donor who is not related to the patient has been lined up by the hospital. But the risk of deadly complications arising from such a procedure make it an absolute last resort.

Forrest said Khan has about a 10-per-cent chance of survival without his sister’s help. If she is granted the visa and is able to undergo the procedure, those odds increase to about 50 per cent. Now, Khan’s cancer is being held in remission by regular chemotherapy treatment.

But that’s a stopgap measure that will work for only a few months, at best.

“The longer you wait with this type of cancer, the increased likelihood that he is going to relapse, so you really need to get on it,” Forrest said.

A spokeswoman with Citizenship and Immigration Canada was unable to comment on the matter Monday.

dahansen@vancouversun.com