Holly’s Anthony Nolan story began when she first joined the stem cell register in 2016, but it didn’t stop there as she’s gone the extra mile to spread the word and help save lives.
For many people, when I start explaining Anthony Nolan and the process of donating stem cells, their brain goes ‘medical, medical, medical!’ and switches off. It’s not until you’ve persevered through that speed bump that you get to say “I was individually matched to save someone’s life. I donated my stem cells to someone else and, as a consequence, they are doing ok”. At that point, they tend to sit down and listen. This is an honest account of my journey with Anthony Nolan. Both the highs and the lows.
Why I joined the register
In April 2016, I heard the news that a beautiful, sporty young lady who is a family friend was diagnosed with leukaemia. Heart-breaking.
As time went on, our family friend went through chemo and radiotherapy and eventually the time came when she needed to find a donor. This was when I signed up to the register, as well as many of her family and friends. She was a lucky one and ended up having a few donor options for the doctors to select from.
What happened next?
One day after work, I was on the train home when I came across an email that I scrolled past and thought nothing more of. It was only when I scrolled back up that I read the subject line, ‘You may be a potential match…’ that was it, everything changed. It was only five months since I had signed up.
Everything around me disappeared and the realisation of the email I had just received very slowly sunk in. Because I had seen the other side, from the recipient’s point of view, I knew it would be a big deal.
At the same time, I knew I might not have been the only person who had received the email and therefore I needed to prepare myself for starting the matching process but not finishing it. How do you, as a potential donor, prepare for giving over some of your body to save a life, as well as being prepared for not helping at all? To be honest, I still don’t know.
I obviously wanted the right match for the individual, but it doesn't stop a donor’s roller-coaster of emotions!
All this emotion and no one really understands how you are feeling. In many ways you feel like you can’t express your anxieties, because the reality is, at the other end of your lifesaving donation, someone is going through a hell of a lot worse.
Being the 10 out of 10 match
I ended up making it all the way along the roller-coaster to the final donation day. It turns out after providing more blood samples that I was a 10 out of 10 match for my recipient, giving them the best chance possible. A mad journey all the way to what was soon to become some of the most defining days of my life.
The run up to donation requires lots phones calls, chats and working with the nurses to arrange the injections that stimulate your bone marrow to produce stem cells into your bloodstream. As this builds up, you get a stiff kind of feeling around the biggest bone areas in your body; mine was mainly in my pelvis and upper legs. People described my walking on the last day of injections as if I was pregnant. Stiff, slow and just generally tired.
Donation day one and two
Then it’s day one. For me, day one didn’t go very well. For a number of reasons they didn’t get as many stem cells as they needed. Long story short, I was told I needed to go back for a second day of donation, which meant another injection that evening. And I cried. I cried like a baby, and I never cry. But I did, for no reason I understood other than I was totally exhausted, highly emotional and didn’t know what else to do!
Every low has a high though and because of the previous day’s complications, the next day I got my own private room. I was put under heated blankets for about an hour to start with this time to make sure my body was fully prepared and my veins fully dilated. Put it this way, day two was a dream. The machine wasn’t beeping (every beep means something's not going to plan), I got to sleep, I relaxed and low and behold the stem cells came flowing out.
And that was it, I was done, my stem cells were ready to send off. I was handed my little bag and it was one of the strangest things knowing that it could save someone's life. The fact that they were there waiting for them, having had their current immune system totally wiped out. It was mad and I was totally and utterly exhausted, both mentally and physically.
Getting back to normal
The weeks that followed saw me get back to normal life. With regards to doing sport and exercise it was like coming back from an injury, learning to trust your body again and take it step by step to see how much it could do. It took just over a month to be 100% back to normal and being confident that I could do it.
At this point I was taken off the register for two years and became attached to my recipient in case they need any further donations as a top-up. But other than that, the whirlwind of my medical journey with Anthony Nolan was done.
Donating is simple, but so important
We often say that donation is a very simple process, which it is. 100%. And I would encourage anyone to do it. Being a donor is unique, amazing, incredible, nerve wracking, difficult to comprehend and any other emotion you can think of. And at the same time totally normal because nothing actually changes, but you can help to save someone’s life. And if the transplant doesn’t work, you know that you gave them the best chance possible.
But it’s so important to be honest, no point fluffing it up, it is a roller-coaster and we need potential donors if they are selected to complete the journey through to donation. That way we can keep saving people’s lives.
To find out more about donating your stem cells and how to join the Anthony Nolan stem cell register, visit anthonynolan.org/join. You can read more about Holly’s Anthony Nolan story in Part Two of her blog.