It’s not every day you get to meet the person who saved your life, but Laura Regan from Cockburnspath in the Scottish Borders had that opportunity when she was united with the anonymous person who donated their stem cells to give her a second chance of life for a soon-to-air episode of ITV’s This Time Next Year.
Laura, 24, received a bone marrow transplant in 2015, after being diagnosed with actute lymphoblastic leukaemia at the age of 21. Laura learned early on that, due to her having the Philadelphia chromosome, chemotherapy and radiotherapy wouldn't work. Her only chance of survival was if her entire immune system was replaced, and she had a stem cell transplant.
After an extensive search for a person with the same tissue type, blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan found a match for Laura.
The journey was far from smooth despite a donor being identified: ‘We got off to a false start,’ recalls Laura.
‘The transplant was scheduled, and I was waiting in my hospital room, when I was told that the procedure would have to be pushed back. The donor had been unable to provide stem cells via the bloodstream which is how people most commonly donate, so they needed to give cells from the bone marrow in their pelvis. We weren't sure whether my donor would agree to this and whether that meant that the transplant could go ahead.'
Thankfully the donor agreed to this and the transplant took place.
Laura said she always knew she wanted to meet her donor and thought about them often: ‘I knew it wouldn’t have been easy for him, having to re-arrange their life around the transplant.’
Donors and recipients must remain anonymous to each other for two years after a transplant. Laura said: ‘Six months before the two-year period of anonymity was up, I finally built up the courage to send them a thank you card'
Laura didn’t hear anything back from her initial correspondence: ‘I found out later they were overwhelmed with emotion and that’s why they didn’t reply.’
A researcher from the TV show This Time Next Year discovered the blog Laura started after her leukaemia diagnosis - ‘as therapy’ - and kept updated throughout her experience of preparing and undergoing a stem cell transplant.
Laura said: ‘Before the anonymity period was up, someone from the show came across my blog. They reached out through Facebook, asking me if I’d be interested in the show’s concept. I would be recorded pledging to meet my donor within the year, and filmed at various increments as I discovered my donor’s identity and in the lead-up to the meeting.’
‘Of course I was keen meet my donor, but knew it would be a daunting prospect for them to agree, especially as it was filmed! Thankfully, they were as enthusiastic as I was to meet.’
Both Laura and her donor were driven by the opportunity to raise awareness of the vital work undertaken by Anthony Nolan, matching stem cell donors with patients in need.
Her donor was 29 year old Simon Bird, a doctor, originally from Lancaster but living in London.
Laura explained that the year after her transplant she moved to London for work. She was not aware, however, that she was moving into the neighbourhood of the man who saved her life.
‘The first thing I did when I got Simon’s details was to look up his address on Google Maps. It turned out that he lived just three miles away!'
The day of filming was ‘super exciting but nerve wracking’ for Laura. The fact the meeting would be filmed added an extra dimension to an already emotionally charged scenario.
Laura with presenter Davina McCall.
‘It was overwhelming’ admitted Laura of the meeting.
‘Every one of my friends told me I would be in tears; but on the night, I couldn’t stop smiling. Simon was everything I’d hoped and imagined in real life and I was just so grateful to him for what he’d done.’
Following filming the pair have kept in touch: ‘We’ve been out for drinks. We’re both in long term relationships, and Simon and his partner have invited me and my partner over for dinner. We’ve become close’.
Henny Braund, Chief Executive of Anthony Nolan said ‘It’s heart-warming to hear stories like Laura and Simon’s – there is no better way to showcase the incredible difference our wonderful stem cell donors make to the lives of patients with blood cancer.
'Like Laura we’re grateful to donors, like Simon, who help Anthony Nolan to give a second chance of life to three people every day. We can’t find a suitable donor for around a third of people who need a lifesaving transplant which is why raising awareness of our work and, in particular, the need for more donors, is vitally important.
'I would encourage anyone aged 16-30 who is thinking about joining the register to visit the website to find out more.’
This Time Next Year airs Tuesday 5th March at 8pm on ITV.