A Christmas Eve 'race against time' to save a life

December 22, 2015
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A volunteer from Peterborough will embark on a 7,000 mile round-trip to Canada to make sure a UK patient receives the gift of life for Christmas

In a race against the clock, retired consultant Sue Brooks is giving up her Christmas Eve to collect lifesaving stem cells from Canada before delivering them to a UK patient in desperate need of a stem cell transplant.

The precious cells are likely to be the patient’s last chance of survival, and must be delivered from the donor to the recipient within just 72 hours.

A self-confessed ‘Christmas person’, Sue is a volunteer stem cell courier for the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, which runs the UK’s bone marrow and stem cell register.

“Whenever I am on a trip for Anthony Nolan, I am always very aware that I’m physically carrying a person’s life in my hands,” said Sue, who was an A&E consultant for 19 years. “It is a responsibility to ensure the cells arrive on time, but it will also be a wonderful feeling to hand over the gift of life on Christmas Eve.

“I will hand the box of cells over with a prayer and a hope that this person, whoever they may be, goes on to live a long and happy life after their transplant.”
When a person in the UK needs a stem cell transplant, Anthony Nolan searches the world’s donor registers to find them the best possible match, breaking international boundaries in order to save lives.

Before a transplant, patients undergo intense chemotherapy to wipe out their own immune system in preparation for receiving the cells from the donor. Once the conditioning has started, the patient needs to receive the donor cells within 72 hours, otherwise the cells will die and the transplant cannot go ahead.

Sue is one of Anthony Nolan’s team of dedicated volunteers who travel around the world picking up lifesaving stem cells and making sure the stem cells arrive with the patient’s hosptial safely and on time, even in the face of major world events like ash clouds and hurricanes.

"There’s nothing like the feeling of handing over the cells.”

Incredibly, 66-year old Sue has now done over 280 trips over the past six years for Anthony Nolan, taking her from Taiwan and Australia to Tel Aviv and Poland.

She said: “It’s a challenging role but I love it, you really have to think on your feet, which I’m used to having worked in A&E for so long.

“I’ve sprinted through many an airport and train station, dealt with cancelled flights, and even wandered round Dubai looking for ice packs to make sure the cells stayed cold – in the end I scrounged some from Burger King!

“It can be hard to switch off – when I’m on the bus in my spare time, I’ve found myself searching around for my Anthony Nolan box, convinced I’m meant to be carrying it. I’m so used to hotel rooms that sometimes I wake up and wonder where I am!

“But I love helping people on such a one-to-one basis and there’s nothing like the feeling of handing over the cells.”

Sue - who has six nieces and nephews and 12 great nieces and nephews - will fly out to Canada this weekend, before returning to Birmingham on Christmas Eve to deliver the cells.

While there, she is hoping to see her younger brother James who lives in Canada, and to meet his 18 year old son for the very first time.

“Christmas is all about family so we’re really going to try and make sure we meet up while I’m over there. The last time I saw my brother was on another Anthony Nolan trip about 10 years ago!

“Once I’m back, I’ve got family all over the country so I’ll be trying to make it to St Albans for midnight mass, then spending Christmas Day in Lincoln with my brother, then over to Huddersfield on Boxing Day to see my nieces. Then on New Year’s Eve I’ll go to sleep… unless there’s an Anthony Nolan trip, that is!”

It costs Anthony Nolan £60 to recruit every single lifesaving donor to the register - which is why it's so important for us to raise vital funds. To make a Christmas donation to us, simply click below: