A seventeen year old girl has become the world’s youngest-ever stem cell donor after giving them to an anonymous stranger.
Plucky Macclesfield sixth-former Victoria Rathmill signed up to the Anthony Nolan bone marrow register in February this year, when she was still 16 years old, and was identified as a match for a patient with blood cancer within just a few months.
Her donation, which took place at the London Clinic in October, makes her the youngest person ever to provide stem cells for an unrelated transplant [i.e. to a non-relative], and has been hailed as an historic first.
A-level student Victoria was inspired to join the register after a family friend was diagnosed with leukaemia. When Anthony Nolan R&Be (Register & Be a Lifesaver) volunteers visited her school to raise awareness of the register, Victoria was so determined to sign up that she initially forgot to tell her mum.
‘At first I was like: “I’ll join when I’m 18, I’m not going to make any difference”, but then a friend of our family got ill and so I felt the need to join up,’ she said. ‘It was only a couple of weeks after I signed up that I told my mum. Anthony Nolan sent the spit kit out to me and she asked me what it was. Though she was taken aback a bit at first, she thought it was a nice thing to do, especially given our friend’s experience.’
Mum Paula Rathmill says that while, like any parent, she was a little scared for her daughter to begin with, she is very proud of what she has achieved.
‘Victoria’s always been headstrong and determined but it never really occurred to me to try and stop her from helping another person in their hour of need. It makes me very proud. Yet even though she’s strong, what she’s doing takes courage and she’s still only 17. I didn’t want her to feel bad if it doesn’t work out for the patient, which it might not. But she’s level-headed and after having gone through the donation process, she knows she couldn’t have done anymore.’
Anthony Nolan Chief Executive Henny Braund applauded Victoria’s unique achievement. ‘Victoria’s historic donation is genuinely impressive. It shows both what a special young woman she is, and how teenagers can be sufficiently mature, caring and engaged with the world around them to help save an unwell stranger.’
Anthony Nolan is one of only two bone marrow registers in the world that accept under-18 donors, and in October 2012 it became the first register to accept 16 year olds.
‘Most people wait an average of six years to donate, if they ever donate at all,’ said Ann O’Leary, Anthony Nolan’s Head of Register Development. “Victoria donated within six months, which is statistically very rare and quite amazing. It feels a bit like fate that she joined when she did.’
While Victoria has largely taken it all in her stride, she also appreciates the uniqueness of her decision. ‘After I signed up I just stopped thinking about it really. You just don’t expect to get the phone call within six months of registering. It’s quite shocking to think I’m the youngest-ever; you’re never the first to do anything nowadays, it’s all been done already,’ she said.
Speaking about the donation process, she added: ‘It’s just like giving blood really. I would do it again because it’s not that difficult. It’s just a couple of days out of your life to save somebody else’s - and I got a free trip to London!’
Michelle Garvey, Assistant Principal at All Hallows Catholic College, which Victoria attends, said all the staff and students were behind her.
‘Her friends and teachers really admire what she’s done. She’s a genuinely lovely student; a really positive go-getter, always doing things for charity. Once we had made sure that this was something she really wanted to do, and her mum was in agreement, we were really proud and supportive of her.’
In a message to other parents, Paula Rathmill urged them to be as informed as their children. ‘To others who go through this I would say look it up, get involved and then encourage your child as much as you can. I personally feel you have to trust your children to make the right decisions. While it’s up to each family to decide for themselves, the question I asked myself was “what if Victoria was ill and a 17-year-old donor could help save her life?” If the boot was on the other foot, I know what I would want.’
Anthony Nolan uses its register to match potential donors to blood cancer patients in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant. Usually this is their last chance of survival.
For those who are too old or too young to join the register, there are many ways to help save lives through fundraising and volunteering. The more funds there are available, the more lives that can be saved.