A dedicated Banstead volunteer who has made over 300 trips delivering stem cells across the world has retired from the role on her 75th birthday.
Maureen Savage has been a volunteer courier for Anthony Nolan since June 2009. The charity matches people in need of a lifesaving stem cell transplant with selfless, anonymous donors, working in partnership with other registers around the world. Where a UK patient has a match from an overseas donor, volunteer couriers such as Maureen collect the cells and deliver them to the patient’s hospital. It’s a varied but extremely important role; because the stem cells are so delicate, they must be delivered within 72 hours, so time is always of the essence. The cells are transported in a cool bag, which Maureen has permanently by her side as she travels.
In her eight years as a volunteer courier, Maureen has made 310 such trips, travelling as far afield as Australia, Canada and New York. Maureen was in Tel Aviv in July 2015 when Palestinian militants fired rockets on the city, injuring six people. Maureen was close enough to hear the rocket, but thankfully she and her precious cargo were safe.
On another occasion in 2010, Maureen was collecting a donation from Birkenfeld in Germany when she had a phone call to say that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull had erupted and all European flights were cancelled due to the ash cloud. “I didn’t even know there were volcanoes in Iceland!” said Maureen. “I was a bit stranded – I managed to get to Paris and tried to get on a Eurostar. A French port official asked where I was going and why – when I told him I was delivering stem cells he opened a desk up for me and got me on a train. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been able to get a seat on the train for three days.” Despite the disruption, Maureen still managed to deliver the cells to Birmingham on time – indeed, she has never missed the 72-hour cut-off.
The grandmother-of-four got involved with Anthony Nolan while she was volunteering at the tea bar in the Royal Marsden Hospital. Maureen happened to meet Glenn, another courier, who mentioned that she travelled a lot.
“I’d never really been anywhere,” said Maureen. “I’d only ever been on organised trips to Scotland and Tenerife, the kind where you don’t really have to think for yourself and everything is done for you.”
The idea of travelling in her retirement, and saving lives at the same time, appealed to Maureen and she applied for a courier post.
“I see the world with Anthony Nolan and help other people at the same time. I’ve never felt afraid or vulnerable. We have great training and wonderful support – although I do sometimes feel I have a guardian angel.”
Volunteer couriers can only perform the role until the age of 75, so Maureen will now be stepping into another valuable role – visiting people who are donating their stem cells in the UK to thank them for giving someone a second chance of life. Donating stem cells is usually done via peripheral blood stem cell collection – similar to blood donation – and can take up to five hours. She is also looking forward to spending more time with her great-grandson, seven-month-old Leo.
Andrew Court, Volunteer Manager at Anthony Nolan, said: “Maureen has made an enormous difference through her dedicated and tireless volunteering over the last eight years. She’s helped more than 300 people have a second chance at life, and although it’s sad to see her retire from being a courier, we’re delighted that she’s bringing the same passion and commitment to being a donor visitor. We can’t thank her enough for her support.”
Maureen’s contribution was celebrated at a volunteer coffee morning at Anthony Nolan’s London office on Friday, and she was presented with a bouquet of flowers, bottle of champagne and a card by the charity’s chief executive, Henny Braund.
“I’ll miss being a courier, it’s been part of my life for all these years,” said Maureen. “I feel like a small part of the process, there’s so much more involved – the donor, the awareness-raising – I just have a little contribution to make by delivering the cells.
“When the going gets tough on some of these trips I think of Shirley Nolan, who strived so hard to find a match for her son Anthony, and it's that thought that keeps me going. I'm also aware that the patient and their family must be worried on occasions when travelling is affected by national disasters and bad weather, and this has made me more determined to make my delivery.”
If you are interested in volunteering for Anthony Nolan as a courier, donor visitor or a number of other roles, visit www.anthonynolan.org/volunteer. To donate money to support the charity’s work, visit www.anthonynolan.org/give.