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Elizabeth Kiem Headshot

Between Breaking Bad and Doing Good...

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One month ago in Moscow I had drinks with an old friend. Misha listened politely as I itemized the tasks for fall: promote my new novel, get my son settled in high school, fix my god-awful Internet situation.

Then he leaned in over the restaurant's loud music and asked, "Do you think, when you get back to New York, you could help someone raise several thousand dollars to get a stem-cell transplant?"

Misha wanted me to meet Anton Buslov, a twenty-nine-year-old astrophysicist fighting an aggressive form of Hodgkin lymphoma. Buslov is currently under the New York care of perhaps the world's finest team of doctors, engaged in the world's most innovative treatments -- all of which was made possible by online donors. Buslov is the probably the first Russian to crowd-fund his cancer.

I sent Anton an email the day I got home. We corresponded for two weeks (much of which found Anton in the hospital. "I just got the bill! $57K," he wrote one day), before meeting in person. That day Anton had a high fever, a stomach infection and virtually no white blood cells. We met in the midtown office of the Center for Lymphoid Malignancies.

"Oh I'm quite sure I'm headed back to the hospital," he told me almost cheerfully, "probably into quarantine too, so it's a good thing it takes them a few hours to secure a bed. That way we have time to talk."

And we did. We talked about faith, about science, about chemotherapy and about Anton's sister, a 26-year-old graduate student in mathematics who speaks five languages, has muscular dystrophy that confines her to a wheelchair, and is a perfect match for the transplant that Anton requires to live. If, that is, Anton can raise the money for the operation, which typically runs from $300,000 to $900,000.

Anton, an unflinching rationalist not given to delusion, is certain he can do it.

"A year and a half ago my doctors told me there was nothing they could do to treat me so I should go home and get ready to meet my maker," he told me. "I refused. I did my research and found out who COULD treat me. And then they showed me the price tag. $150,000! I walked in circles for two days, slapping my forehead. ... $150,000. How do you find it? And then I thought, you ask for $5. And you ask 30,000 people."

In fact, Anton's initial ask, posted in a simple blog post, was read by about 100,000 people, most of whom were already familiar with his story. He raised the initial sum in a week. He flew to New York and enrolled in treatment in January. The generous funding has now been exhausted.

"A much bigger sum is needed now, it's true," he said as the nurse changed his IV and checked his temperature. "So I need that many more friends. But everybody could use more friends, right? They are out there."

A few days before I met Anton, I spoke with Dr. Owen O'Connor about his prognosis. O'Connor laid out some ugly odds but also described an unusual patient. "Anton has a masterful understanding of what is in his best interest," he said. "Our conversations are full of detailed questions that are utterly appropriate but not typical of most patients."

I asked O'Connor what is typical of his patients. He answered, money. "Most patients have substantial personal means. Enormous personal means. [Anton's] obviously not in this category."

As Anton and I waited for his blood test results, he tried to impress upon me the other categories he defies as a charity case.

In Russia pleas for help are always on behalf of an innocent child, a newborn baby. So how do I convince you to consider my life over that of a child? I believe that if I can show you that I have done things in my life that are for the good of society, the good of other people, the good of the environment, then by return, my ability to keep doing such things has value.

And so comes the short but impressive curriculum vitae: chief architect of a satellite network; an eight-year old NGO supporting green transportation; and perhaps most relevant, his current role as a source of guidance and inspiration for thousands of Russians who lack Anton's uncanny navigation of international medical options and their financing.

It's not that these accomplishments are better than others, Anton implies. It's only that they are good. They are positive.

This week, from his quarantine room in the hospital, Anton is taking time out from his Russian blog to join a new social network: the giveforward platform, which allows patients with overwhelming medical bills to share their stories with potential donors.

"Dear Friends," he writes on his profile: "I would like to tell you a story about how one can fight cancer without Breaking Bad..."

As I read Anton's newest plea, with its American spin, I think back to that night in Moscow, when my earnest friend Misha posed a question of priorities. I remember how as he was driving me home we got lost in one of Moscow's lonelier corners and crossed paths with a rather ancient but steadfast tram carrying three or four old men and women home. There is nothing so plaintive and poignant and Russian than a midnight tram, just two cars long, clattering along a lamplit street, and I remember saying to Misha: "won't it be a sad day when there are no more trams in Moscow?"

I think of this because, though the topic that probably draws the most of Anton's readers to his blog is his personal health, there are many other subjects that make up his passionate tag cloud. Among them, the development of an urban transport system for 21st century Russia, in which ecologically friendly trams play a central part. For Anton has drawn up such plans for three major Russian municipalities.

And to think that when I promised Misha I would do what I can for Anton, I was only thinking about my time, his favor and another life...

Misha didn't tell me about the trams.