Prashant Kulkarni works as the Assistant Director of Food and Beverage at the iconic Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel the Stamford, leading a team of 750 colleagues across 15 venues. No one can imagine how this jovial and optimistic man in his forties was once on the brink of death, fighting for his life with cancer ten years ago.
Prashant grew up in India and studied Hotel Management. He started his career as a Chef in a leading Mumbai hotel, and went on to marry his girlfriend from college. In the early 2000s, Prashant was given an opportunity to practise his craft in the UK, working at the Dorchester Hotel in London as a Chef. This was undeniably the highlight of his career at the time.
Not long after he and his wife celebrated the birth of their son, Prashant started experiencing a persistent itch in his limbs. He began to lose appetite and weight, broke out in night sweats, had sleepless nights and was constantly lethargic. The doctors diagnosed his symptoms to be a suspected skin infection and he was given medication for treatment as such over a year. A skin biopsy did not show any abnormality either.
By the following year-end, he was experiencing extreme difficulty in breathing and started wheezing. After a chest x-ray in a suspected case of tuberculosis, Prashant was diagnosed with stage 4-b Hodgkin’s Lymphoma with a 15cm tumour in his chest cavity. Given his humorous disposition, his wife thought he was joking when he broke the news to her. That night, he did more research on “lymphoma” through the internet and realised all the symptoms described were in fact what he had been experiencing.
The gravity of the situation and the possible outcomes hit hard the next day when he had to tell his boss of the diagnosis. He realised it meant he could potentially not work anymore to support his young family at home. His son was only one and a half years old at the time.
Prashant subsequently underwent a total of twelve treatment sessions over a span of six months. After he was given the all-clear from his doctors and was in remission, he quickly went back to work, eager to make up for lost time.
However, about six to seven months later, the itching returned; prompting a PET scan from his doctors which revealed the Lymphoma was back and more aggressive than before, with the markers revealing the condition had permeated his entire body.
He had to go for a stronger dose of chemotherapy which was administered through a drip over 5 days in hospital. The higher dosage meant his body and mind took a beating. He had nausea, hair loss, stomach cramps, and was filled with uncertainty.
“The hardest part for me was not being able to see my son while I was in hospital. Initially, my wife would bring him along but it was a very traumatic experience for him, as he was only one and a half years old. As reluctant as I was, I had to ask my wife not to bring him along anymore. It was also very tough psychologically to be conformed to the four walls of the hospital room for weeks; not to mention the emotional impact of having to constantly battle some form of infection or other side effects.” said Prashant.
As the cancer persisted, proving to be too difficult to manage, Prashant’s doctors suggested that he get an Autologous transplant where his own stem cells will be used, followed by an Allogeneic transplant where the stem cells will come from a donor. This was by far the most difficult phase of his treatment.
Getting a donor was the hardest part and finding one that matches all the 32 parameters is nothing short of a miracle. The donor must be registered, come from the same ethnicity and should be in peak health to be able to donate stem cells.
All this was only possible with the dedication and skill of the doctors who manage the register and take the tireless effort to match cells at a genetic level. The emotional stress was high with the possibility that all efforts may be futile, and the body may reject the donor cells. One is also at risk after transplant from common infections, graft versus host disease, herpes and other afflictions.
With a competent team of doctors and nurses, huge dose of luck and lots of blessings and support from near and dear ones, Prashant finally got on the road to recovery. The transplant was a success. The graft took shape over many months and he gradually got his health back. The emotional struggle he had within to keep fighting and survive was driven by a deep yearning to be with his wife and son. He was motivated to see him grow up and watch him succeed in life.
Soon after, Prashant was invited to work as Executive Sous Chef in Fairmont Singapore. One of the key reasons he was prepared to take on the role was because Dr Lim Zi-Yi, who was part of the UK medical team that treated him, had relocated back to Singapore. Dr Lim is currently the Executive Committee President of the Bone Marrow Donation Programme.
“Looking back, my UK chapter has been a harrowing but priceless experience. Working at a top hotel under the guidance of some great chefs, I learnt and grew so much personally as a connoisseur and in hospitality,” said Prashant.
“Although I almost lost my life to cancer, I was also saved by someone’s generosity and kindness. That little 100ml bag of stem cells gave me a fighting chance and saved my life. I am now able to play an active father’s role to my son and be there for my wife.”
Prashant now urges everyone who is eligible to sign up as a Bone Marrow donor. “You can give a priceless gift of life. You can save a family from being torn apart. It is a chance to put others before self; be willing to help; be generous and give.”
Prashant would also like to appeal to the Indian Community in Singapore to come forth to volunteer as donors.
For the patients who are waiting for a matching donor, Prashant has this to say “Never give up, because anything is possible. Have only positive thoughts. Don’t create barriers for yourself. Don’t indulge in self-pity.”