Blood cancer survivor meets his lifesaver for the first time

5 April 2019

As Elton John’s ‘I’m still standing’ song played to a crowd at our Let’s Make A Spark supporter event, 65-year-old Gary, a leukaemia survivor, father-of-two and grandfather, was joined on stage by Karen, the woman who helped save his life in 2015, following an emotional meeting where the pair met for the first time.

Gary’s blood cancer journey

In December 2014 Gary and his wife, Marion, travelled to Auckland, New Zealand, to spend time with their son James and new grandson Ethan. However, it was when he was in the US, visiting their other son Philip, in San Francisco, when things took a turn for the worse.

Gary said: “I started to notice that I was feeling more and more tired. We didn’t have any health insurance, so I was putting off going to the doctors and then it got to the point where I could hardly walk. I had to go and see a doctor and he said to go to the hospital immediately. Philip had to show his credit card before I could get treated."

The diagnosis

After receiving four units of blood, three units of platelets from the hospital, along with a letter to say that he could fly and a face mask to wear on the plane, plus a bill of around $20,000 for his one night in hospital, Gary was free to return to the UK.

“In my heart I knew I had leukaemia and the worst moment was flying home knowing I had this life-threatening condition and thinking I might never see San Francisco again.”

Gary’s instincts proved correct. A bone marrow sample taken at the Salisbury District Hospital led to him being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Following several rounds of chemotherapy, it was decided in June 2015 that Gary’s best chance of survival would be to receive a blood stem cell transplant. As there wasn’t a suitable match within his family he had to rely of a complete stranger to help save his life.

Finding that perfect stranger

Following a few agonising months’ wait Gary said: “The Southampton Hospital identified a 10/10 match but that fell through and I don’t know why, so I was told they would go ahead with a 7/10 match. I was a little worried as it didn’t sound quite as good. I was just about to go in to hospital and they said that they had better match. It was Karen and she was my 10/10 match.”

After seeing an appeal to help a little boy, Finn McEwan, find his lifesaver, Karen, 58, registered with DKMS as a potential blood stem cell donor in March 2015, at the age of 54. She said: “I just knew straight away that it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to try and help somebody because I had recently lost two family members and it was so frustrating that I couldn’t help them.”

A few months later the mother-of-three was notified she was a potential match for someone and in October 2015 she donated her blood stem cells by a peripheral blood stem cell collection.

Karen said: “If you are prepared to receive a blood stem cell donation if you needed one yourself then you should be prepared to donate. If you get the opportunity to donate – it’s just an amazing feeling to be able to help save someone’s life and for me to be able to meet Gary in person has been mind-blowing.”

I’m still standing

Gary said: “Looking back on the whole experience, going through the leukaemia diagnosis, treatment plan and having somebody like Karen donate her blood stem cells to me, without even knowing who I was is incredible.

“Not only has it been life-saving but life-changing, Having gone through that experience of almost losing it, and losing everyone you love, it’s made me really appreciate life. I look at it completely differently and my life is better than it’s ever been.

“Elton John’s song ‘I’m still standing’ played an instrumental role throughout my blood cancer journey and thanks to DKMS and all their wonderful supporters, like Karen, I am still standing. Karen said she was inspired by a little boy she had seen on TV who needed a blood stem cell transplant. I’m an older man at the other end of the spectrum. It goes to show that when you register to become a lifesaver-in-waiting you’ve no idea who’s waiting. Hopefully, a lot of other people will be inspired to donate their blood stem cells.”

How you can help

If this has inspired you and you would like to register then please check your eligibility and sign up as a potential blood stem cell donor. Anyone between the ages of 17-55 and in good general health can go on standby to potentially save a life.

If you’re not eligible or you’re already registered, why not check out the other ways to get involved in the fight against blood cancer or help us cover donor registration costs.