Arthur Yu’s life-saving stem cell donor needs permission to enter U.S.

Arthur Yu was exhausted, but he chalked it up to being a new father.

Usually active, Yu was finding himself winded by the afternoon. He negotiated with his wife Alice to get just a little bit more sleep, thinking his fatigue was just a passing phase.

But four months after the birth of their son Abel, Yu was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a genetic mutation that formed in his bone marrow and spread to his blood. Thanks to several rounds of chemotherapy, Yu is currently in remission, but his doctors say that status is temporary and his best chance for beating the cancer is a stem cell transplant from a suitable donor.

Yu found an ideal match in a distant cousin, only he now has to convince the U.S. government to let that person into the country. And so far, the feds said no twice to granting a visa to his potential donor.

A stem cell transplant would greatly increase Arthur Yu’s chance to fight his leukemia.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

After the media strategist was diagnosed with leukemia last March, doctors asked his family to take cheek-swab DNA samples to see whether there were any suitable candidates for the procedure. None of his immediate relatives were a match, but a distant cousin was: Noel Talania, who lives in the rural Philippines countryside.

The two had never met, and neither is fluent in Tagalog, the most common language spoken among the Filipino diaspora. (Talania speaks Ilocano, the third-most spoken language in the Philippines.) So the two connected over Facebook Messenger last year and translated their words into their respective languages over translation programs.

Talania agreed to become a donor and understood the severity of the situation. Yu was realistic about all that he was asking from his cousin, and he was gracious about it.

“I feel like I’m asking of you too much,” Yu would write to his cousin. “That’s when it turns into sort of like a reminder of gratitude.”

Talania spent an entire day traveling from his rural town to the U.S. embassy in Manila on Dec. 18, according to 41-year-old Yu, who thought that by the beginning of 2024 he would be in the process of receiving a stem cell transplant at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

At his embassy interview, Talania was provided an interpreter who spoke Tagalog, not Ilocano, Alice Yu said, which wasn’t ideal for making his case. It was a sign of things to come: At the end of the meeting, an embassy official made it clear that the U.S. government was denying Talania’s application for a tourist visa. The official reason was stated in a boilerplate letter handed to Talania: The government held that Talania could not prove that he would return back to his home country after arriving in the U.S., as required by section 2.14(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, despite the facts that his wife and children live in the Philippines and that he has an established business there.

“When we applied for this visa in December, no one warned me that this was going to be a problem,” Yu said. “Even my doctors were surprised.”

Citizens of 41 countries are allowed to travel to the U.S. without a visa for business or tourism purposes, but the Philippines is not one of those nations.

Talania appealed the denial, and Yu’s family and friends reached out to any available resources to find a workaround. Inquiries by aides to U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) expedited the application process, and Talania was granted a second interview on Jan. 10.

Talania arrived with documents showing that Yu could afford to house Talania while undergoing the transplant procedure, along with a doctor’s note detailing Yu’s diagnosis and proof that Yu’s family were in contact with Padilla’s office. He also brought his marriage certificate and proof that he wants to return to the Philippines after the procedure.

But he was stopped before he could present any of it.

“They told him, ‘Oh, we don’t need to see that,’” Alice Yu said, recounting what an embassy official told Talania.

This time the embassy didn’t provide an interpreter, and the interviewer spoke to him only in English, Alice Yu said. The official did not look at any of the documents Talania brought with him and told him that his application was denied — again. Talania text messaged his cousin a single screen shot with two words hastily written: “Humanitarian parole.”

The phrase filled Yu with despair.

“I started to ask him, ‘Why are you texting me this? What is this? I know what [parole] is? Are you telling me you got denied?’” Yu recalled asking his cousin.

Humanitarian parole allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis due to an ongoing conflict in their home country. The application process has been used recently by Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, but the process can take up to two years, according to immigration attorney Sameen Ahmadnia with the law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.

Yu will have to make a sympathetic case to the U.S. government to show why his cousin should be allowed to enter the country.

“Only, there are a lot of sympathetic cases,” Ahmadnia said. “The problem is trying to get your case to stand out to a government official.”

Ahmadnia, who offered to work with Yu pro bono after she heard about his case, helped him file the application for humanitarian parole, with a bolstered list of documents to support his case. The hope is that somewhere along the process, someone will expedite his case.

For Yu, “up to two years” is time he does not have.

“If there’s a word for a rage-infused optimism this is it, because I’m thankful that I have this option, but I’m also furious that I have to use it,” Yu said.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to requests for comment. Yu’s story was first reported by news station KABC 7.

Yu’s survival rate with chemotherapy alone is minimal and comes with added risks to his health, according to his physician Dr. Ron Paquette, clinical director, Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplant Program with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Yu will need repeated chemotherapy treatments to keep his leukemia in remission, but every delay puts his life at risk.

Yu is in the “perfect place to proceed” with a transplant, Paquette said. There are some alternatives, like flying Talania to Mexico to donate his stem cells or using another donor who is not as close a match to Yu, but Paquette said the best chance is getting Talania to Cedars-Sinai.

While he’s unfamiliar with the visa process, Paquette urges government officials to “weigh the risks and benefits and read carefully” about Yu’s case.

“This is one person’s life on the line, where we can really make a difference in his long-term survival,” Paquette said.

Yu has “golden retriever energy” according to his wife Alice, even with his cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy treatment, the unexpected death of his father and the battle to get Talania a visa.

“If you just met him, you wouldn’t even know that he’s been through all of this in the past year,” Alice Yu said.

Alice Yu is a surgical nurse at Cedars-Sinai, and when she’s not raising their son with Yu, she’s taking care of her husband — when he lets her, that is, because he’s usually such an independent person. During his most recent chemotherapy treatment, Yu continued to clock into work, because he plans to save his remaining sick days for when he receives the stem cell transplant.

When that day comes, Alice Yu will become his caregiver 24/7 because it will take him more than a year for his immune system to recover.

But she’s also noticed her husband taking time to explain mundane tasks he usually tackled around the house, like paying their property taxes or working the remote controls in the home.

“It’s all to prepare me for when he’s not here,” she said, her voice breaking.

When Talania reported from Manila that he was denied a visa for the second time, it was late at night in Los Angeles. The message landed with a crash in the Yu home. Not knowing what to do, Alice and Arthur ate some strudels from Porto’s Bakery.

“We calmed down a bit, and then we went to sleep. There’s nothing else you can do at that point,” Yu said.

Without a transplant, his doctors arranged for another round of chemotherapy. Yu agreed, but before he went into the hospital he took his 14-month-old son to ride the trains at Griffith Park’s Travel Town just like he did when he was a child.

He also hastily arranged to baptize Abel at Cathedral Chapel of St. Vibiana, the same chapel where he married Alice.

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