A PhD student has told how he saved an actor’s life, and made a lifelong friend, by donating his stem cells.
Jeremy Brice, 28, saved the life of Michael Thomas, 62, after Michael developed a form of blood cancer called myeloma.
Little did Jeremy know that the stranger receiving his stem cells was a successful stage actor, who went on to star with Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old Vic following his stem cell transplant – something that could never have happened without Jeremy’s lifesaving donation.
When the donation took place the pair were complete strangers, but they have now met for the first time and are sharing their story to help the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan bust myths about stem cell donation, during its Myth Busting Campaign.
Michael’s co-star, The Hobbit actor Armitage, has since described it as a “privilege” to meet the pair backstage at the Old Vic, and said: “Without this brilliant young man, my friend wouldn’t be here.”
Jeremy, who was studying for a PhD at the University of Oxford when he made his dontion, said: “I didn’t really have any side effects at all. I think I had a tiny bit of lower back pain but it was barely noticeable.”
He added: “The actual donation procedure is much easier and less painful than people think. I think people still think it’s a surgical procedure and you’re going to wake up feeling like hell. Actually, all you do is sit down for three hours with a couple of cannulas in your arm and it’s not really painful at all – the worst of it is having to sit in the same position for three hours.
“It’s not scary, it’s actually remarkably easy, and I think there is still a lot of myth busting to be done.”
Jeremy joined the Anthony Nolan bone marrow donor register in 2004 when he was an undergraduate student.
He then put it to the back of his mind until early 2012 when he received a call from Anthony Nolan to tell him that he had come up as a possible match for a patient in desperate need of a lifesaving transplant.
Jeremy says that the timing was significant as he had spent much of 2011 caring for his mother who was receiving treatment for breast cancer.
He said: “I’d just had the better part of a year of having a really, really bad time of it watching someone that I’m very close to going through this really horrible process of treatment. This call made me think, ‘there’s somebody else out there somewhere who’s presumably had a very similar kind of thing happen to them’.
“I knew this person, whoever they were, would have had chemotherapy and maybe a transplant using their own stem cells, and that it hadn’t worked. I realised that this person probably had a family who were watching them going through this really distressing time –it was a bit like what I had been through, only 10 times worse.
“So, when somebody called me and said I could, potentially, make that stop for this person and everyone around them, I just thought, what sort of person would you have to be to say no? Yes, of course I want to do it!”
Jeremy had further tests and it was confirmed that he was a good match for the anonymous patient, who he now knows to be Michael Thomas, who has performed with the RSC, the Old Vic and the National Theatre.
Michael, a married father-of-two with 40 years’ acting experience, was diagnosed with myeloma in 2010 after his optician flagged up an abnormality and suggested that he visit his GP.
He had chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant using his own stem cells but his cancer was very aggressive, so he was advised that his best hope of survival would be to have a stem cell transplant from a donor with the same tissue type.
None of his relatives were suitable as donors so his doctors asked blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan to look for an unrelated donor on its register. The charity found Jeremy, whose tissue type matched Michael’s, and the transplant took place later in 2012.
Following a transplant, the patient and donor have to remain anonymous for two years so Michael and Jeremy shared anonymous letters through Anthony Nolan.
Michael said: “When you’ve received this gift from somebody, you want to thank them. I thanked him in a card and I said, ‘this is wonderful what you’ve done, thank you very much. You must have given up time and you’ve gone through some discomfort to do this and I am very grateful.’ I also explained that he is saving my life at the moment, and giving me the best possible chance of a future with my family.”
He added: “I was intrigued about who he was. It is a strange thing when somebody has lobbed a bit of goodness into the air and you have caught it – I was intrigued to know where it’d come from.”
Once the two year anonymity period was over, Michael and Jeremy decided to meet.
Jeremy said: “Michael is a really lovely guy and a fantastic bloke who’s very easy to talk to. It was a really lovely added bonus to eventually meet up with him and to find that we get on really well.”
Michael added: “It was very moving meeting him. All you can do it just to say thanks and to explain that that person has done a good thing. That’s all you can do.”
At the meeting, Michael explained that he was starring in a production of The Crucible with Richard Armitage and asked if Jeremy, and his girlfriend Alicia, would like to see the play.
They accepted the invitation and Michael was able to arrange for Jeremy and Alicia to meet Richard Armitage as Alicia is a big fan.
Richard Armitage, who has starred in The Hobbit, Spooks and North & South, said: “I was privileged enough to spend time with Jeremy and Michael together backstage at The Crucible, and it struck me that without this brilliant young man, my friend wouldn’t be here. It was surreal and beautiful to see how one person’s act of kindness for a total stranger led us all to that moment backstage at the Old Vic.
“But what really surprised me was that something that had been so simple and easy for Jeremy had totally changed the course of Michael’s future. Like many others, I’d assumed donating would be painful, but I was wrong. That’s why I’m now so passionate about helping Anthony Nolan bust these myths which are so entrenched in our society.”
Jeremy and Michael have now been featured in a short film, created by Edward Wright, which tells their remarkable story.
They are also supporting Anthony Nolan’s Myth Busting Campaign which sees the charity attempt to bust some of the most prevalent myths about stem cell donation.