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I owe my life to an amazing stranger - donor and recipient meet again after 30 years

A grandmother from South Wales has been reunited with the stranger who saved her life 30 years ago. Read this story in the Daily Express here.

Catherine Naylor was just 36 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia and given a year to live. She had a devoted husband and three young children.

She was told her only chance of survival was a bone marrow transplant. But, it was the 1980s and, at the time, Catherine was told this was a new procedure which had never been tried in a patient with her condition – Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML).

She was also told that there was just a one in 70,000 chance of finding a matching donor.

Incredibly, a willing donor was found on our register, which was then much smaller than it is now. Sara Davies, then 29, agreed to donate and give a stranger the chance of life.

Catherine beat all of the odds and the bone marrow transplant was a success. Thanks to Sara, 30 years on Catherine is healthy and has had the chance to see her daughters marry and to meet her grandchildren.

'It was absolutely magical to see her again'

And last month, the pair were reunited after Sara’s husband, Roger, secretly invited Catherine to his wife’s 60th birthday party.

Catherine said: “If Sara hadn’t given me her bone marrow I wouldn’t have seen my children grow up or my grandchildren born. You can’t imagine what it feels like to have someone do that for you – there aren’t any words for it.

“It was absolutely magical to see her again - it was lovely. I was thrilled to see her and we had a wonderful time.”

Catherine, now 67, from Rhoose, near Barry, was diagnosed with CML in November 1983 after suffering from stomach cramps and tiredness.

Initially, doctors thought she just had indigestion but, eventually, tests revealed her spleen had swelled to the size of a rugby ball and she was given the devastating news that she had leukaemia and would not live for more than a year. At the time, her children were just nine, 12 and 13.

Catherine underwent a year of gruelling treatment and was told that a bone marrow transplant was her only chance of survival.

Her siblings were tested to see if they were a match for her, but neither of them were.

As a result, her doctors said her only chance was to find an unrelated donor through Anthony Nolan, which was only established in 1974 and had far fewer potential donors on its register than it does today.

Catherine was also told that no one with CML in the UK had ever had a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor.

Catherine, who was treated at University Hospital of Wales, in Cardiff, said: “It was a horrible, horrible shock. I just wanted to grab my children and go on a long holiday but my husband, Graham, was so positive that it rubbed off on me and I began to believe I could get better.”

A lifesaving donor was found

Amazingly, Anthony Nolan was able to find a matching donor for Catherine.

Sara Davies, now 60, from Petersfield in Hampshire, joined the Anthony Nolan donor register in her early 20s after learning that her father might need a bone marrow transplant for Aplastic Anaemia.

The dental hygienist says that she never expected to be asked to donate but that she was excited and positive when she received the message that she was needed to help save someone’s life.

Selflessly, Sara agreed to donate and travelled to Cardiff to do so. This was before new methods of donation had been developed, so Sara stayed in hospital for five days as she was required to have a general anaesthetic. Now, 90 per cent of stem cell donations take place via a simple outpatient procedure which is very similar to giving blood.

At the time, rules about donor-patient anonymity were yet to be established and so Sara and Catherine were able to meet in the hospital.

Sara said: “It was absolutely fine – in the whole scheme of things the operation was just one of those things.

“I was also able to meet Catherine’s family, which was wonderful. I was so touched by the experience that five years later I named my daughter, Katherine, after Catherine.”

Thanks to Sara’s generous donation, the transplant took place on January 16, 1985, and it was a success.

'I can't believe it happened'

Catherine said: “It worked and that was the main thing but it is like a dream – I can’t believe it happened. I can still remember being in the hospital bed and I was given so much treatment before the transplant that I had no immune system so I was told that if a fly landed on me, that would be it.”

Catherine spent almost three months in hospital after the transplant but she and Sara remained in touch.

They continued to write to each other and Sara even attended the wedding of one of Catherine’s daughters.

But, despite continuing to send cards and letters, the pair stopped seeing each other as their busy lives took over.

Then, to mark the 30th anniversary of the transplant, Sara’s husband, Roger, invited Catherine to his wife’s 60th birthday party in September this year.

Sara and Catherine met again in London for the first time in 25 years. It’s also the same year that the Anthony Nolan charity celebrates its 40th anniversary.

'Donating was a very important part of my life'

Catherine said: “It was a surprise – it was a lovely, lovely thought. It was fabulous and we were thrilled.

“Roger was brilliant – Sara didn’t know anything about it. He did very well!”

Sara added: “It was a total surprise to me. I recognised her immediately and realised what Roger had planned – it was fabulous. It was just amazing and very emotional.

“Roger got lots of Brownie points! It has rekindled the friendship with Catherine. Donating was a very important part of my life – it is one of the things I have been most proud of.”

How you can help

We've given 13,000 people the chance of life since it was established in 1974. We recently launched our ‘Thank You Stranger’ campaign to celebrate four decades of saving strangers’ lives.

Could you help save a stranger’s life by supporting us? Visit www.anthonynolan.org/thankyoustranger

If you're in good health and aged between 16–30, click on the button below to join the bone marrow register:

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