Photo: Connor McCourtney
Sitting alone in the emergency ward at Mercy Medical Center, Drake University first-year student Shiv Morjaria wanted answers.
The nurse led him to the X-ray room for a chest scan. He waited, and still nothing. The doctor couldn’t tell him why his armpit felt enlarged and painful. She couldn’t tell him whether everything would be OK.
In the next weeks, more scans followed, as did a biopsy that left a large scar. The doctor found the answer: cancer. The lump in Morjaria’s right shoulder area was Stage II non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I noticed pain in early September, but I kept ignoring it,” Morjaria said.
Morjaria waited until late October to be checked out at the Drake Student Health Center. He was sent immediately to Mercy the same night.
Surrounded by 15 friends and brothers from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, Morjaria received the diagnosis. It was two weeks after the initial checkup he thought would be routine.
“The doctor was pretty angry when she saw all the people, but the news was bad, so she let me have that one,” Morjaria said.
Beginning in November, he returned to Mercy every two weeks for chemotherapy treatments — the worst experience of his life.
Morjaria’s muscle mass quickly diminished, leaving his already lean frame even thinner. Constantly tired and nauseous, his appetite disappeared, and mouth sores made eating painful.
During the week between treatments, Morjaria followed his doctor’s advice to eat whatever would go down. He ate pizza, hamburgers and other foods to ward off more weight loss.
“Before, I was always sympathetic about cancer. I’d feel sad for like 10 minutes and then think it couldn’t happen to me,” Morjaria said. “When it does, your eyes open completely.”
Welcome Weekend in August was Morjaria’s first American adventure. Born and raised in Mombasa, an island off the main-coast of Kenya, he began college 8,572 miles from home.
By midterm of first semester his schedule was full. When the side effects from chemotherapy weren’t as bad, Morjaria split his time volunteering at the Alumni Office, working at the Herriott Hall front desk and the C-Store, and participating in activities with the South Asian Student Organization, Drake Actuarial Society and Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity.
Despite many missed classes, he gained a spot on the President’s List for earning a 4.0 in his 18 credit hours. Quadruple majoring in actuarial science, finance, math and information systems, Morjaria refused to let cancer slow him down.
“He’s like Superman,” said first-year Jared Simmer, who took Morjaria home to Orion, Ill., for Thanksgiving. “I’ve never seen anyone do anything like he does.”
Morjaria attended the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa for high school, an International Baccalaureate World School. He says the transition to college curriculum was easy after the strenuous work ethic of the academy.
“He was amazing. I noticed no effect from his treatment,” said Daniel Alexander, associate professor of mathematics and Morjaria’s instructor for Calculus II. “He never turned in work late or used his illness as an excuse.”
After missing two night classes for financial accounting, Morjaria approached Adjunct Professor of Accounting Tammy Mason about dropping the class and retaking it in the spring. Instead, Mason allowed Morjaria to complete the remaining tests and quizzes online over winter break, trusting him not to cheat.
“Shiv is a very intelligent person and serious about his classes and learning,” Mason said. “When he told me about his illness, he had already analyzed his class load relative to what he thought his abilities would be during his treatments.”
Morjaria said he expected his professors to understand, but they have gone beyond that. He’d heard Americans were too busy in their own lives to care about anyone else. Now, he believes the opposite.
Thinking the worst-case scenario would be free food, Morjaria went into recruitment last fall with little desire to join a fraternity. After walking into the SigEp house, he felt a connection and joined. He hasn’t been alone since.
“There was no single chemo or medical visit where he went with less than two people,” first-year Austin Cooke said. “We made sure he wasn’t alone.”
Whether running to Walgreens to pick up medicine or making soup when his mouth sores were bad, the fraternity brothers wanted to help, added Cooke.
“His demeanor is always up and positive,” first-year Drake Bittner said. “He’ll pull the cancer card, then smirk and laugh about it.”
In December, the brothers organized the event “Cuts for Cancer.” The event was originally titled “Shave for Shiv,” but Morjaria wasn’t comfortable with that and wanted to broaden the scope of awareness. Thirty-five students shaved their heads to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
The fraternity’s philanthropy week and annual softball tournament “Queen of Hearts” is dedicated to the memory of Eric Grunzinger, a Drake student and SigEp who died in 2001 from complications with leukemia. Morjaria said the fraternity’s connection with cancer awareness is a wonderful coincidence.
“There’s always been someone there with me. I’ve never had a single night where I’ve ever really thought, ‘Oh my god, this could be fatal,’” Morjaria said. “There’s no point dwelling on it if I have no control over it.”
The fraternity gathered funds to fly Morjaria’s mother Daksha to Des Moines. Morjaria turned down the offer, feeling overwhelmingly supported by his brothers.
With the money already saved, the fraternity got the approval from the executive board to put the money toward Morjaria’s hospital bills. SigEp pledged to pay $2,500, almost 90 percent of the remaining balance after insurance benefits.
“We pride ourselves on being warm, friendly people in Kenya, but I don’t think I’ve ever received this much support back home, where I’ve lived 18 years,” Morjaria said.
The Road Ahead
Morjaria celebrated his last chemotherapy treatment Feb. 17. Numerous PET scans revealed minimal cancer cells remaining. After radiation, he hopes the cancer will be in remission.
Despite the distance from home, Morjaria stays connected through daily phone calls with his mom, talking about Kenya and his younger brother and sister.
“I can only imagine what they must be going through,” Morjaria said. “It is much easier on me than it is on them.”
Morjaria’s father, Paresh, wrote a letter to the fraternity, Drake faculty and staff to thank them for their support in a time when he couldn’t be there for his son. Through the bleakest moments, Paresh said, the stories of generosity boosted his family’s morale.
“The massive amount of love and support Shiv has had could only have been true in fairy tales,” Paresh wrote. “My wife and I no longer feel apprehensive about Shiv and his battle with his ailment. We know he is in best hands, both medically and emotionally.”
Senior Jayesh Menon is Morjaria’s neighbor in Kenya, and the one who led him to apply to Drake. Although Morjaria’s initial plan was to transfer to Harvard or Stanford after his first year, he says that is no longer an option. Drake is his home.
Morjaria desires to obtain a future position in SigEp to show his gratitude.
“I can never even hope to repay them for what they’ve done for me,” Morjaria said. “I want to serve them as they’ve served me.”