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Hero stem cell donor's essential travel across country during lockdown to save a life

A selfless student has travelled from Dundee to London during the Covid 19 (coronavirus) lockdown, to donate stem cells to a stranger in desperate need of a potentially life-saving stem cell transplant. 

Biomedical student Francis Allison initially joined the Anthony Nolan stem cell register three years ago, when he joined Dundee University’s Marrow society, which is part of blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan’s student volunteer network. 

Lifesaving transplants are still taking place during the current coronavirus pandemic. Blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan has continued to match individuals willing to donate their stem cells to patients with blood cancer or blood disorders who are counting on them to survive.

After Francis joined the Anthony Nolan register, the charity confirmed his 'tissue type'. Every time the charity was informed of someone needing a transplant, they compared the patient’s tissue type to Francis’s - and over 800,000 others on the register - as well as registers across the world.

Francis was found to be a match for a stranger in urgent need of a stem cell transplant, and donated his stem cells at the peak of the pandemic. 

Francis, 20, says, ‘I was so excited to find out I was a match for a patient with blood cancer. I’ve spent quite a few years signing people up to the Anthony Nolan stem cell register as a Marrow volunteer at university, so I know a lot about the process and have heard many a success story. To actually have the opportunity to experience this myself, it felt like the next step on the life-saving journey.

‘When you know that you are potentially this person’s last and best chance at life, you cannot just sit on your hands and do nothing. It felt more like an honour.’

Recalling his journey to donate Francis said: ‘I travelled to London once for testing and then again for donation. Due to lack of flights I was in London for an extra two days before my donation and flew back 7:50am the morning after.’

‘The first time I travelled, I was supposed to fly but I turned up to the airport which was like a ghost town and there was no staff. I managed to find one person from all the closed check in desks and was told “no one’s in from British Airways today”. So my flight was cancelled over the weekend and I wasn’t told.

‘In that aspect it was a bit nerve wracking that there was barely anyone to ask for help or directions. It was the first time I had travelled the country myself. But Anthony Nolan sorted it out and the next day I got an eight hour train journey to Kings Cross from Kirkcaldy, with a change at Edinburgh Waverley. 

‘The train was very quiet and people were designated carriages. I stayed one night and the following day was for my medical. After it was done, I got the train back home to Dundee.

‘I knew the pandemic was going on and I took precautions. However, I just wanted to make sure I got to London to begin the process for the patient. In that spirit, I did not become too worried as I presumed most other travellers were also essential and following social distances. I was safe and remained sensible on both trips. I did not develop any coronavirus symptoms and Anthony Nolan checked in on me days seven and fourteen post donation.

‘It was very nice weather in London when I went, so it was frustrating I couldn’t explore the city a bit more, but I stayed safe in the comfortable hotel ordering room service’ Francis said.

Stem cell donors are usually allowed to bring a friend or family member along with them to their donation, but due to restrictions in place due to Coronavirus they must now go to their appointment on their own. Anthony Nolan have also been sending protective facemasks to donors, so they are able to protect themselves on public transport.

Francis says, ‘There were some travel disruptions that needed solving but the work that Anthony Nolan are doing is extremely essential. There are patients out there whose condition is the same and this hasn’t changed that.’

‘I don’t think you really appreciate the gravity of the gift you’re giving the person until you’re lying in the bed connected to the machine. That is when it really sunk in.

‘I thought about my recipient when I was donating. What they may be doing or thinking right at that moment in time. I looked at the stem cell bag and thought it is theirs now. I truly hope it’s everything they need to live a happy and normal life.’ 

Anthony Nolan recruits people aged 16–30 to the stem cell register as research has shown younger people are more likely to be chosen to donate.

They also carry out ground-breaking research to save more lives and provide information and support to patients after a stem cell transplant, through its clinical nurse specialists and psychologists, who help guide patients through their recovery.

It costs £40 to recruit each potential donor to the register, so Anthony Nolan relies on financial support. To ensure transplants can continue, Anthony Nolan needs to raise an additional £30,000 every month that the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Henny Braund, Chief Executive of Anthony Nolan says:, ‘These are extraordinary times. Francis has done an extraordinary and incredibly selfless thing by giving someone with blood cancer or a blood disorder their best chance at survival.  

‘Transplants continue to happen around the world meaning we still need people to join the UK stem cell register. Every person who joins the Anthony Nolan register, like Francis has the potential to help save someone in desperate need of a lifesaving stem cell transplant.

‘We particularly need young men aged 16–30 to join the Anthony Nolan register as they are the most likely to be chosen to donate.’

People aged 16–30 can join the register online at www.anthonynolan.org/join

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