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Raha Assadi-Lamouki is a young idealist who writes her congressman frequently but rarely expects a reply — other than dutiful form letters from U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen’s office. So the last thing she expected was a call from the vice president Monday after writing to the White House about her brother’s death from cancer.
But for 16 minutes, 41 seconds — Assadi-Lamouki timed it — the 24-year-old law clerk from Minnetonka talked with Vice President Joe Biden.
“I was trying to figure out how to record it on my phone,” she said, “but I was worried I was going to hang up on him.”
They discussed her brother, Roozie, who died from leukemia in October at age 21. They discussed Biden’s son, Beau, who died of brain cancer last May at age 46. Then they discussed a new White House initiative to accelerate the search for treatments that could spare others from suffering what their loved ones suffered.
“For me, obviously a cure is very important, but I saw Roozie go through 12 years of cancer treatment,” Assadi-Lamouki said in an interview Tuesday. “What cancer treatment does to someone’s body and their life is really, really hard to watch. Not just losing your hair, not just the physical aspects of it, but the mind and the heart. … So that part is really important to me, the research behind finding friendlier cancer treatments.”
The conversation was prompted by the White House “moonshot” to add $1 billion in federal funding in the next two years toward cancer research, and an invitation on Biden’s Twitter account for people affected by cancer to share their stories.
Roozie’s battle with cancer started at age 9. But it didn’t stop him from graduating on time and with honors from Hopkins High School, or studying mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
Roozie had been treated for a brain tumor at 9 and then for lymphoma at 14 before receiving a bone-marrow transplant at 15 to treat an early stage leukemia. If he remained healthy for five years after that, he was told the prognosis would be favorable.
Roozie backpacked through Europe after graduating high school, and spent summers as a camper and later as a counselor at a Montana camp for children with cancer. As the hopeful five-year mark approached, he learned he had leukemia and would need another transplant. This time, the severity of the cancer and the treatments were too dire. He died Oct. 20.
“My best friend, my little brother, my hero, my idea of HOPE, COURAGE, and RESILIENCE … passed away,” Assadi-Lamouki wrote in her letter to the White House. “He got a second bone marrow transplant. But his body never recovered. Infection after infection crushed his body. And he could no longer keep going.”
The family learned that Roozie’s cancer was likely terminal last June — one month after the vice president’s son, Beau, died. Assadi-Lamouki followed Biden on Twitter and was heartened by his openness in discussing the loss.
On the phone call, Biden asked about Roozie and offered his condolences, she said. “He told me he was sorry that he and I had something in common like this.”
$1 billion in new funding
The White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force held its first meeting Monday, before announcing that the Obama administration would ask Congress for $1 billion in new cancer funding this year; it will seek the input of doctors and cancer experts but also of patients and families. Following Monday’s meeting, Biden called Assadi-Lamouki and a woman in Ohio battling breast cancer.
“Every single one of them will matter,” Biden said in a statement, “when it comes to making concrete progress toward ending cancer as we know it.”
The vice president lightened the mood by telling Assadi-Lamouki, a student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, that he would rather run for president than take the bar exam again. That didn’t make Assadi-Lamouki feel much better — she is taking the exam this summer.
Assadi-Lamouki said memories of her brother’s wide smile remain fresh in her mind — a smile that made her and her other brother jealous because they needed braces to get what Roozie had naturally.
She remembers Roozie as the go-to guy at high school for unvarnished advice on studies and relationships, and as someone with a tinkerers’ mind who would bore her explaining how a refrigerator worked. His transplant doctor at one point put him to work at a U lab to study the Epidermolysis Bullosa disease and its links to cancer.
Roozie’s full name is Roozbeh, which in Farsi means “better day.”
Assadi-Lamouki said she’s uncomfortable discussing her brother publicly and feeling the grief that accompanies the memories. But she and her mother promised they wouldn’t miss opportunities to advocate for cancer patients.
“He didn’t,” his sister said, “die in vain.”