November 13th 2015 would be the first date to turn our family’s lives upside down in the months to come. My brother Jimmy – a fit and healthy sporty type, a lecturer of public services, a gym regular and a hardened anti-smoking advocate – was admitted to hospital after experiencing a throat infection that just would not shift.
Just 12 days short of his 34th birthday, it proved to be a Friday 13th to remember for all the wrong reasons. It was the day we learnt that my brother had acute myeloid leukaemia. Shocked, scared and reeling from the news, Jimmy learnt that he would be spending the best part of the next few months taking on the battle of his life.
Or, more accurately, the battle for his life.
His own body was attacking itself. The bone marrow is responsible for creating stem cells which then develop into red and white blood cells and platelets. All of these are needed for us to live. Jimmy’s cell development was affected by an abnormal cell growth – cancerous cells – that attacked his myeloid cells. Myeloid cells are responsible for keeping the body healthy through fighting infections and enabling the body to repair itself after illness or injury.
Acute myeloid leukaemia is an aggressive cancer that progresses rapidly and so time was of the essence. Already suffering an infection that his body could not fight, the chemotherapy that Jimmy was to undergo in order to wipe out all his abnormal cells would wipe him out completely. His body was neutropenic and unable to fight infection. For all bar a handful of days – fewer than two weeks in total – my brother has spent the last five months in hospital confined to a solitary room in an attempt to stay infection-free, undergoing rigourous chemotheraphy in an attempt to destroy the cells that were killing him.
It’s been quite the journey for him. His body had trouble withstanding the combination of the infection and the second round of chemotherapy. The first week of 2016 had us all rushing to his bedside in ITU where he lay in a coma. To say we were frightened would be an understatement. I made many deals with the devil that day, I can assure you.
The battle didn’t end once the body had stopped producing cancerous cells. In order to ensure the bone marrow does not reproduce abnormal cells again either now or in the future, the entire production of its cells needs to be changed. This is done through Jimmy undergoing a stem cell transplant. Before a transplant can be carried out however, a donor needs to be found.
Finding a donor isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do with people from some cultures and backgrounds finding it harder than others to find a suitable match. Our parents are Greek and Turkish and whilst it makes for interesting political conversation it also means that finding a donor could be a bit of a challenge. Siblings can be tested as a match but with only a 50/50 chance of it occurring, I was unfortunately unsuitable and sadly completely useless to help at all.
Just over a week ago Jimmy was transferred to the very wonderful Royal Marsden Hospital. It’s where my father is also being treated. Jimmy has spent the last week preparing himself for today.
Last night something incredible happened. As everybody else in the world was going about their own business, our thoughts were with an aeroplane that would soon be landing with the most precious cargo ever.
After a worldwide search through the blood donor register a match for Jimmy was finally found.
One day, a stranger decided to take two minutes to provide his stem cell samples and register his details on the worldwide register, all from the comfort of his own home.
Last night’s flight carried the stem cells that a stranger in Israel donated to someone he would likely never meet, whose life he is about to save.
How amazing is that?
Today is the big day of the transplant and Jimmy will remain in hospital for the next few weeks as they monitor its outcome. Hopefully it will be a success and he can live a long, happy and healthy life with his wife-to-be. The chances are good and we remain positive.
For many others suffering blood cancers, their lives still depend on finding a donor. According to DeleteBloodCancer.org.uk there are over 27 million people on the bone marrow register but half the people in the UK still fail to find a lifesaving match. That’s a bit shocking, especially knowing how blood cancers don’t discriminate and even the fittest, healthiest of people can be struck by their own body attacking itself.
Two minutes is all it will take to see if you can save someone’s life.
If you are in the UK and aged 17-55 you can click on over to Delete Blood Cancer’s registration page.
The first step is to check your eligibility by running through the four steps covering your location, your age, your general health and your weight and height details (it’s all confidential)…
Rejoice that you are! Soon you might be saving someone’s life! What better gift could you possibly give anyone, ever?
Next, fill in your details so your kit can be sent out to you…
Look out for the post. Your kit will come in a few days. It will arrive in a simple envelope like this…
What’s that? Just one envelope? You thought there was more to it? Sorry to disappoint but this is really it. A freepost envelope, a pair of swabs and an envelope to place them in. That is all it takes.
It’s very straightforward to do as I’m about to show you. All the instructions are on the back of the swab envelope too.
They may look like humble barcodes but these, my friend, are extremely important…
You will notice that there are two barcode stickers. Stick the first one to the swab envelope on the area indicated…
Stick the second barcode to the Freepost envelope that you will use to return your swabs in…
Open the pack of swabs carefully. Do not put them down or allow them to come into contact with anything else at all.
Using one swab at a time, rub it around the inside of your cheek for 60 seconds. Remember, it’s the cells the swab needs to pick up, not necessarily saliva.
Isn’t it remarkable to think that we can’t even see the cells that will determine whether I will be able to save someone’s life one day? And that they could be anywhere in the world?
Pop the swabs in the swab envelope. Put that envelope into the Freepost envelope provided and pop it in the postbox. You’re done!
As soon as your swabs are received you will be notified by email. The swabs will be sent off to the lab so that your tissue type can be determined. That data will then be stored on a central database that is available worldwide. When someone searches to find a particular blood donor for a blood cancer patient, and you are found to be a match you will be contacted.
The actual donation process called the peripheral blood stem cell collection (PBSC) is almost as simple. In the days running up to the transplant a nurse will visit you and give you injections of granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) over four days. G-CSF is a naturally-occurring hormone which will enable your body to produce an increased number of stem cells. On the fourth day you will need to attend a specialist collection centre for your injection and the PBSC donation will start the following day. It’s a simple, risk-free and straightforward process and doesn’t hurt at all. You’ll be seated and a small tube will be inserted into your arm. The blood will be drawn out and passed through a machine where the stem cells will be collected. The process takes about four hours and you can go straight home after. You might even get a cuppa and a biscuit too.
And in case you missed me mentioning it before, this simple act could save someone’s life – anywhere in the world.
Want to do a little more? Jimmy and his Emily are trying to raise a little cash for the leukaemia and lymphoma research organisation Bloodwise so they can pay all the care and support they have received forward. They are just over £400 into reaching their goal of £1000. Even if you can only donate £1 please could you do so by clicking over to their Just Giving account here. Alternatively, Paypal it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll make a general donation on your behalf.
This post was also featured in Honest Mum’s Brilliant Blog Posts.