A transplant survivor and her lifesaving donor have been brought together in an emotional meeting, as part of BBC documentary series The Gift (Tuesday 17 February, BBC One, 9pm).
Mum of three Lisa Whaymand’s life changed forever when, out of the blue, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of blood cancer – Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.
Aged just 41, Lisa’s life hung in the balance for nearly a year, as she fought to see her young children Jack, Harry and Livvy grow up.
Her survival is down to the selfless act of an anonymous bone marrow donor who was on the Anthony Nolan register. Thanks to him, Lisa had her transplant at Churchill Hospital, Oxford, in November 2010.
Unknown to Lisa at the time, this kind stranger was a dad from Aberdeenshire called Neil Munro, who joined the Anthony Nolan register ten years earlier when a colleague was doing some office fundraising for the charity.
How 'The Gift' brought Lisa and Neil together
Several years after the transplant, Lisa was still coming to terms with her ordeal. In a bid to finally put her trauma behind her, Lisa responded to a Facebook post from Anthony Nolan, looking for people to take part in the BBC One series ‘The Gift’.
"I got in touch and told them I wanted to meet the person who gave me a chance of life," she said. "I was amazed when I was chosen."
Anthony Nolan worked with the documentary makers worked to trace Neil and his family to a remote corner of Scotland, where he was working in the oil industry.
“I was working offshore when I got the call to say I was a match,” said Neil. “I travelled to London with my wife and we had dinner and a walk around Covent Garden the night before I donated my stem cells. It was just like giving blood but with a holiday in London thrown in!
I always thought about the person on the other side though, wondering who they were and what they were going through. Later, when I found out how ill she was and that she had young children too, I was quite overwhelmed.”
The pair were filmed meeting for the first time at Neil’s Aberdeenshire croft as part of the programme, where he was joined by wife Louise and children Tara, 14, Connor, 13, and Kirsten, 11.
'He shook my hand - but I just bear hugged him'
Lisa said: “I remember driving up the country lanes and coming into the driveway. The sun was low so I couldn’t see them properly but I could see it was Neil and his family standing outside.
"Neil stepped forward to shake my hand and say 'hello, lovely to meet you' – but I just bear hugged him. After the filming had stopped, my son Jack went up to Neil and said, ‘Thank you for saving my mum’s life.’ It was very emotional.”
The kids all got on ‘from day one’ according to Neil and they knew it wouldn’t be long until they met again. Lisa was reunited with Neil and his family at the Anthony Nolan labs for a special tour of the very place where Neil’s cells were tissue typed to ensure they were a match for Lisa.
'Something wonderful has come out of the trauma'
Lisa and Neil’s families are now in close contact and are ‘like family’, according to Neil.
Neil said: “Since that first meeting on The Gift, Lisa’s family have become like our own extended family. We text a lot and even our kids speak to each other all the time on WhatsApp, Instagram and on the X-Box. We’re now planning to have the whole family up to visit in the summer to see some local Highland Games.”
Lisa agreed: “It’s been a wonderful year since we’ve met. We’ve been to the Anthony Nolan labs, taken all the kids to Legoland together and visited Neil and the family in Scotland – the kids were able to climb a mountain and ride ponies. We want to make sure we meet up with them every year. They’re stuck with us now! It’s so lovely that something wonderful has come out of all the trauma.”
'Signing up to the register is easy - but the result could be life-changing'
Richard Davidson, Director of Communications and Marketing, at Anthony Nolan: “Neil has given Lisa the greatest gift, the gift of life, and this means that Lisa is able to enjoy a happy future with her family. It’s hard to imagine a more selfless and meaningful act of kindness.
“This story is just one example of what can happen when a selfless stranger like Neil takes the step to sign up to our register and potentially save a life. Signing up to the Anthony Nolan register just involves visiting our website and giving a saliva sample – but the result could be life-changing for someone like Lisa.”
The Gift featuring Neil and Lisa’s story will air on Tuesday 17 February at 9pm on BBC One, presented by Matt Baker and Mel Giedroyc.
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