Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman shared an emotional conversation with an ‘amazing’ mum who did everything after her family’s lives were completely turned upside down when her son was diagnosed with a rare and acute blood disorder. Olivia, who is Patron of leading charity Anthony Nolan, laughed and cried in a short film with Holly Cross, 50, from Hemel Hempstead to highlight how the determination of the charity’s founder has led to a million stem cell transplants – as the charity urges the public to donate so their work can continue.
Olivia heard from Holly that blood tests revealed Rupert, 13, had a rare bone marrow chromosome disorder, called myelodysplasia with monosomy 7, when he was just six years old. Doctors told the family a bone marrow transplant to replace his damaged cells was Rupert’s best chance of a cure but nobody in his family was a match.
The Cross family turned to the charity Anthony Nolan which, fortunately, was able to find a donor who was a genetic match to Rupert through the register – the world’s first – set up by Shirley Nolan. Billy Higgins, then a stranger, donated bone marrow in 2016 after signing up to the Anthony Nolan register in 2011. Had there been no matching stem cell donor for Rupert he may not have survived.
Olivia listened intently as Holly described how, after his transplant, Rupert spent almost three months on an isolation ward to reduce his infection risk and experienced side effects including a severe immune reaction which attacked his skin and liver. Now aged 13 and three years after meeting his ‘superhero’ Billy, who has become part of the family, Rupert is a typical teenager who enjoys listening to music, hanging out with friends and learning to skateboard.
Olivia said: “Speaking to the amazing Holly and hearing how Rupert is doing five years after his lifesaving transplant made my day! Shirley Nolan was the pioneer who has made it possible for families to have a second chance to stay together and even grow to include strangers. The fact Holly shares her story so generously to raise awareness of the incredible work carried out by Anthony Nolan to help the charity continue Shirley and Anthony’s legacy blows me away.”
When asked why she supports Anthony Nolan, Holly says: “I’m fighting for all those parents who are at the bedside of their children, their babies. Those parents that are fighting to stay alive to be with their children, so they can be with them next birthday or Christmas.
“Family comes first. They all need to spend their time with their family as they don’t know what time they have left. I don’t want them to spend a second looking for a donor, raising money for Anthony Nolan. That’s my job now.
“Anthony Nolan saved the life of my son and therefore given me the time to do this for them. My son now has his whole life ahead of him thanks to Shirley Nolan.”
Holly and Olivia’s conversation has been released by Anthony Nolan to mark what would have been the 50th birthday of the little boy the charity was named after. Unlike Holly’s son, Rupert, Anthony never found the matching donor he needed, and he died when he was just seven years old. His mother, Shirley pioneered and launched the world’s first stem cell register in 1974. Since then, Anthony’s story has given the hope of a lifesaving transplant to millions of people with blood cancer or a blood disorder across the world. Olivia is urging people to make a financial donation to Anthony Nolan, so the charity can continue finding stem cell donors for patients, like Rupert, and funding research to reduce gruelling side effects and improve the success of stem cell transplants.