GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Apart from the tests, quizzes and cliques of high school, Gaithersburg teen Emily Bhatnagar has faced some of her toughest challenges at home — especially after her dad, also known as her best friend, was diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer in October 2019.
Growing up as a shy kid, the Quince Orchard High School senior remembers fondly how her dad would take off work and arrive at her elementary school with her favorite foods in tow, just to be sure she had someone to eat with at lunch. “He was always there,” she said.
“We would do everything together,” Emily added. “[We] still do almost everything together, and so obviously, I was pretty devastated.”
The diagnosis was a crushing blow to the entire family, which includes her older brother and mother. The family of four all pitch in to run an Indian bread and meals to-go shop called Monsoon Kitchens in Gaithersburg. It's a manifestation of her mother and father’s love for cooking.
Along with the added responsibility, the sheer stress of her father’s illness was almost too difficult to bear. Emily began to struggle with intense anxiety and an eating disorder, forcing her to take months off school - all of this, while doing her best to help care for her father as best as she could.
The challenges spanned weeks, which turned to months. Emily found comfort in something she had loved since childhood - losing herself in a wonderful book, where the stories come to life and the characters become fixtures in your memories.
And just as her dad began to make a miraculous recovery, she knew how to help so many others who hadn’t yet heard the doctors say the words “cancer-free.”
“When I realized a lot of young children are struggling with the same or similar battles as my dad was facing, undergoing chemo or radiation ... books always made me happy, so I supposed that books would also make them happy as well,” she said.
Excited to share her new idea, Emily first took to the localized social media app “Nextdoor” to ask neighbors if anyone had a few old books to spare for children in need.
“I was expecting like maybe one or two responses,” she said. “But there were hundreds.”
Soon, boxes and boxes of books were stacked at the Bhatnagar home.
Now, she has an Amazon wish list with books people can mail directly to her to get donated. To date, her largest haul was to patients at Children’s National Hospital on Michigan Avenue, NW. She dropped off 2,215 books there in October. In total, she’s already given out a little under 5,000 books, as well as homemade bookmarks and handwritten letters to the young patients.
She and her dad have a blast packing up books to bring a smile to a child’s face.
This holiday season, she hopes to make a big donation to MedStar Georgetown - the very same hospital where her dad was treated.
Wise beyond her years, Emily has a few words of comfort for anybody going through a difficult season in life.
“You can't blame yourself. I blamed myself for my dad's cancer so long. I felt, like, unworthy of even taking up space or eating dinner, just because I couldn't take away my dad's cancer,” she shared.
“I think, a lot of the times, you'll hear a lot of people say something like, ‘You're so strong' ... and that's a wonderful thing. But I think a lot of people like me don't feel stronger. They feel like they're being put in the spotlight; they're doing what they have to do because they've been forced into a situation that they would never want to be in,” she said of the experience.
“So there’s a part of you that doesn't become tougher, but softer after hardship; like you're resilient, but not invincible. So I feel like just accepting that and being OK with [that] fact . . . you're going to be more sensitive to some things. And it's OK if you need to cry. You don’t need to be that strong person everyone thinks.”
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