Sameer Shiva Reddy was first diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two. Following that diagnosis, Sameer contracted a life threatening complication requiring treatment in Seattle, where ground breaking research was being performed. 

“And for that treatment he actually suffered more than the actual leukemia,” said his mother Ranjina Reddy. “He wasn’t supposed to live past two.” 

But Sameer held on, bravely undergoing several  years of treatment for multiple rounds of various cancers. He died in February, at age 18, shortly after graduating high school.

On June 2, Sameer’s parents, Ranjina and Rajeev Reddy, attended their only child’s graduation ceremony from the Circle Of Independent Learning (COIL) school in Fremont, California. This was a big occasion. Rajeev Reddy was sitting down in the last row, feet spread wide, head in his hands, looking at the cement. Ranjina sat next to him, sunglasses on, hiding the tears in her eyes. 

Rajeev Reddy (left) and Ravi, a family friend (right) hold Sameer’s photo, preventing it from blowing away while attending Sameer’s graduation ceremony at COIL, the Circle of Independent Learning school in Fremont, CA. (Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.)

As they sat there, the Presidential Awards were called out. The parents heard the name “Sameer Reddy.” Startled and unsure of where to go, the Reddys sat up, holding Sameer’s photo between them, and walked slowly towards the stage. 

By the time they got halfway there, the diplomas were being awarded. And so they stood under a large tree, shaded from the sun, still taking in the fact that their son had been awarded the President’s Award for Educational Achievement. The son whom they were told had fallen too far behind to ever make up for it.

Sameer was never able to go to school regularly. Ranjina and Rajeev Reddy were told that he would never catch up, due to the amount of school he missed. They were told that he would probably never finish high school.

Sameer was very discouraged with the regular school system and didn’t believe he could graduate. With 2-3 medical appointments weekly, there was very little accommodation from other schools. Even the Individual Education Program that was laid out for Sameer was not followed. 

Ranjina Reddy stands in the audience, surrounded by friends, holding her son Sameer’s photo, after the end of the Circle of Independent Learning’s (COIL) graduation ceremony in Fremont, CA. (Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.)

It was the move to COIL which gave Sameer hope that he could graduate. 

The teachers at COIL were not only interactive, they also made themselves available to their students for tutoring. Sameer’s grades improved and he eventually became a tutor himself. He would tell his parents: “The teachers didn’t give up on me and didn’t allow me to give up on myself.” 

The dedication and attention Sameer received at COIL was echoed by the student speakers. A young graduate with autism appreciated the focus his teachers provided. Another young woman welcomed the flexibility offered so she could learn the Quran.

Sameer was rarely able to interact with kids his own age during his second and third round with cancer. He was either in isolation at home or an inpatient. Across the Reddy’s home in Fremont was the playground for Forest Park Elementary School. Sameer would hear children his age laughing and playing every day when he left for his appointments. Sameer would often go upstairs and look out the window. 

Aarya Charan, Sameer’s friend, holds blue and white balloon’s with Sameer’s name printed on them while waiting for the Circle of Independent Learning (COIL) graduation ceremony to begin in Fremont, CA. (Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.)

“He was just waiting, waiting for his turn to be able to have that kind of life again,” said Ranjina. 

Sameer never gave up on believing he would live, even after he stopped responding to treatments. He recounted his story on the Humans of Packard Children’s website during an awareness campaign in November of 2016. “I was told I would die soon because there was no treatment left for me anywhere in the entire country. I told my parents, ‘I know I can be healed,'” said Sameer.

Those years of challenges and isolation helped Sameer discover what he wanted to do. He wanted to become a psychologist and teach children how to cope when going through medical difficulties so they could find their own moments of happiness. 

Stephanie Ynzunza, Sameer’s second grade teacher, arrived at the COIL graduation ceremony with her husband to lend support and comfort to both Rajeev and Ranjina and to honor her former student and friend. She had Sameer in her class for only one month before his cancer returned a second and third time at age 8. It was leukemia, again.

“He was a sweet sweet kid, ready to learn,” said Stephanie Ynzunza. When Sameer was diagnosed she had only met Ranjina a couple times. Stephanie asked how she could help. The family needed someone to stay with Sameer while they consulted with the doctors. Stephanie volunteered. 

When she saw Sameer in the hospital, looking so frail, she wondered how this would work and what they would talk about. She noticed that Sameer had toy dogs on the bed that he would play with, and using that to connect, a strong and lasting relationship was built. She visited Sameer every single day after school. 

“When it comes to family, she was that aunt who came and picked him and would take him to movies when he was well enough to be able to,” said Ranjina Reddy.

Jennifer Boyden, Sameer’s senior year teacher, said: “He just really wanted to graduate from high school. And I was happy to help him achieve that goal.” 

Aarya Charan, one of Sameer’s closest friends, arrived at the graduation ceremony, his hands filled with balloons. Sameer’s name was written in blue marker on the white ones. Aarya and Sameer had met around 5th or 6th grade while standing in line. Aarya went up to Sameer and asked him if he liked Pokémon. 

“Hell yes” said Sameer and a friendship was born. Aarya and Sameer would make their Pokémon stories full of memes and jokes. “That was our thing. We’d go to a specific spot and act it out. I’m going to miss his liveliness.  He got very excited about things he was passionate about.”

In 2011, several bone marrow drives were organized in California, Oregon and Washington to save the life of Sameer Reddy, a second grader at Brookvale Elementary School in Fremont, CA. (Photo courtesy of the Reddy family)

In 2010, the team at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital worked to get FDA approval to try something new for Sameer. “We signed a medical consent agreeing that we understand that the cancer is beyond cure and the new  treatment is to try to engraft him. At this point we were told to prepare for his funeral. That he could die any moment,” said Ranjina Reddy. 

The new treatment worked and Sameer was cancer free again at 12 years old. 

Things were looking up for Sameer, but right before the Covid pandemic, the Reddys found a bump. Diagnosis was delayed and by that time the cancer had metastasized to his lungs. The diagnosis was another type of cancer, Malignant Peripheral Nerve Sheath Tumor, a soft tissue sarcoma.

Hours of surgery was performed, but 5 months later Sameer had a relapse. The Reddys moved to Seattle for a new trial but due to complications, Sameer was disqualified from the trial. 

Sameer kept fighting, asking the medical team to not give up on him. “Even to his last breath he did not give up. It was his doctors who gave up on him,” said Ranjina.

Rajeev Reddy recounted one of the last times he was with Sameer, before his soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis. They were on bikes, in the sand dunes. They had agreed that they’d race on the count of 1-2-3 and go. Sameer took off early and “all I could hear was him laughing as he sprayed me,” said Rajeev.

“He laughed so loudly. He laughed from his soul,” said Ranjina Reddy. 

Two months before he died, Ranjina asked him what he’d learned in life. “The first thing is never, never, ever, ever give up.” The second thing he said was: “Always find your reasons to be happy because it’s good for your heart and soul.”

Sree Sripathy

Sree Sripathy is a writer, photographer, artist and disability advocate based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work focuses on the seen and unseen and their relationship to isolation, ability/disability,...