‘Every time I got a letter, I’d silence the room and tell everyone, ‘I donated my stem cells to someone and this is a letter from him.’ - Ben’s story

October 18, 2019
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When Ben was offered a free pen at work, he could never have predicted how his next decision would go on to change his life. After he got the call to say he was a match for someone, he donated his stem cells and has spent the last two years exchanging anonymous letters with his recipient. They formed a real friendship and finally, this year, they were able to find out each other’s identity. This is Ben’s story.

I joined the register at a health and wellbeing day at work. There was a stand, and they got my attention by asking for my spit in return for a free pen, and I thought, why not? So, I joined because of a pen, but the important thing is that I joined. I didn’t think too much about what it meant at the time, but now I’m so glad I did.

A lifechanging phone call

One day in December 2017, I got a phone call from someone at Anthony Nolan. They told me I could be a match for someone who needed a stem cell transplant. From the moment I heard that, I was 100% in.

I’ve had a cancer scare myself and I’ve known people who’ve had some awful illnesses. So, having a direct opportunity to do something to help someone, there was no stopping me. I’ve got young nieces and nephews and I couldn’t help but think, if they got really ill, I’d want someone to help them. So, I feel like it’s only right for me to do the same thing, if I’m needed.

Donating was easy

I was asked to send in some blood samples so they could verify that I was the best match. It was easy - I just went to my GP. Then, when they confirmed that I was the best donor for the patient, I went for a medical to check I was in good health. Being in the RAF, physically everything was tip top, but it turned out I had glandular fever! Once that cleared, the donation could go ahead.

Before the donation, I had a lovely nurse come over five days in a row to give me an injection. The injections are to increase the stem cells in my blood. A side effect, for me, was feeling quite tired. On the first day I felt fine but on the second day, it was a bit of a warm day and I sat down for a minute… and fell asleep - I woke up and everyone was gone!

For the donation itself, I went to London where they’d booked me a nice hotel about 10 minutes walk from the hospital. When I arrived for the donation, I got introduced to the nurses, got settled, they put the needles in, the blood started flowing and everyone was happy!

I would have donated either way, but I was glad I did it through the bloodstream - like most people. It’s just like giving blood, only instead of a half hour session in your local town hall, it’s a full day being looked after in a hospital. You can’t really feel anything happening. It’s no more painful than doing a blood donation - after 5 minutes you’re used to it, one arm has to stay still but you can move the other one, so I just watched films and read a book.

Becoming anonymous ‘pen pals’

I actually wrote a letter to my recipient, saying I hope they get better and that my stem cells help. It’s all anonymous - I only knew he was an adult male. He wrote back, and we carried on writing anonymously to each other.

In the second letter, I gave him a name of ‘Chap’ and signed it off as as ‘Don’ for ‘Donor’. So we became ‘Chap and Don’. When I sent that first letter, I had no idea that we’d end up writing as much as we did!

I knew that after two years you could request to lift the anonymity and be put in direct contact, if you both agree. So, one day, I called the donor support team at Anthony Nolan and said, ‘We’re coming up to the two-year mark. What happens next?’

They said the recipient had to be the one to request contact, and I felt pretty confident that he would. After all these letters, we’d developed such a good rapport. And luckily - he did!

It feels like I’m about to meet a really good friend for the first time

I was excited about it because after two years of writing, even though all the personal details have to be taken out, you get a sense of someone’s character and you start to guess what they’ll be like from how they write, what they write about, all that stuff.

It’s odd after all this time to finally know who he is, because in a way, I feel like I already know him - I just didn’t know his name. It’s like we’ve known each other for years - well, I guess we have! It’s an astonishingly good feeling.

We send each other texts now - it’s a lot quicker than post! It’s really good to hear how he’s doing. We’re planning to meet soon. It feels like I’m about to meet a really good friend for the first time.

My unique way of raising awareness

People I’ve told about it are really intrigued. They’ll ask why I did it and why he needed my stem cells, and I say, ‘Well stem cells can actually treat blood cancer.’ Then they’ll go, ‘Oh, wow. I didn’t know that. So how do you donate?’ and I tell them about Anthony Nolan. I’ve just moved to a new unit and I told my sergeant about it and he wants to get our whole wing to sign up.

Every time I got a letter, I’d silence the room and tell everyone, ‘I donated my stem cells to someone through Anthony Nolan and this is a letter from him.’ That always got a cheer, it was good to educate people about stem cell donation in such a unique way - ‘My recipient wants to say hello!’

We’re all here to help each other, aren’t we?

I’d say to anyone thinking about joining, you should 100% do it. You could be a vital part of saving someone’s life, by having to do so little. I wish I could do more, but I’m really proud of what I’ve done. If I can inspire someone to do the same, I’ll do it.

The thing that motivated me was thinking, ‘If someone you loved got ill, you’d want them to be helped’. So, why not do that for a stranger? We’re all here to help each other aren’t we?

Donating gives you an astonishingly good feeling

The work Anthony Nolan does is literally life-changing. Knowing what Mark has been through, and seeing him finally start to live his life again - going to work, socialising, trips to the countryside, singing in a choir - he wouldn’t be doing any of this, if Anthony Nolan didn’t make these donations possible.

There are lots of ways to help people, but donating your stem cells to someone feels incredibly direct. You know that you were the best chance that person had. If you hadn’t been in the register, if you hadn’t donated, they might not be here. And, whether or not you get to know them, that’s an astonishingly good feeling.

If you want to read Mark’s side of the story, head to his blog at blogs.anthonynolan.org/Mark. And if you’ve been inspired to join Ben on the Anthony Nolan stem cell register, you can sign-up today.