2 October 2019
Jackie Wray, 50, met the stranger whose life she saved by donating her blood stem cells to him, as he recently made an emotional trip from Hattersheim in Germany to thank her in person.
The mother-of-two, who runs a wedding venue in Middlesbrough, welcomed Siegfried ‘Siggi’ Wahl, 71, the recipient of her blood stem cells, and his family to her home after more than three years of communicating anonymously due to the law surrounding stem cell donations and their recipients revealing their identities.
“I loved receiving cards from him” said Jackie. “It used to make me cry every time. I would think ‘thank god he’s still alive!’”
Husband, father and grandfather Siggi was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia, and after initial treatment proved unsuccessful, doctors told him that his best chance of survival was a blood stem cell donation from a person with identical tissue type. Nobody in his immediate family proved to be a match, so he then had to turn to the worldwide register to find a stranger willing to help.
Siggi said: “The diagnosis was madness for my whole family. They didn’t know if they would still have me at Christmas.”
Luckily for him, just 6 months earlier his genetic ‘twin’, Jackie, had signed up with DKMS in 2015 after seeing an appeal for a child in urgent need of a donor.
Jackie said: “I saw a little girl on BBC news looking for a match. She was so gorgeous and my heart just went out to her, so I immediately signed up. I later discovered that she didn’t find her match, but she helped so many other people find theirs because so many signed up because of her appeal. If I hadn’t seen her, I probably wouldn’t have joined the register and Siggi would never have found his match.”
“I had no personal connection to blood cancer at the time of signing up, but since then I lost a colleague to leukaemia, and another friend of mine has aplastic anaemia. She has been told that if her current course of treatment stops working, she will also need a blood stem cell transplant.
“Blood cancer can affect any of us at any time, so it’s really important that people know that they can help.”
Shortly after being identified as Siggi’s perfect match, Jackie began the process of attending health checks and then donating her blood stem cells.
“Getting a free trip to London was fantastic as I don’t go there much! The donation process was so easy, it doesn’t hurt – it’s just like giving blood but takes a bit longer. I did mine and then hit the shops afterwards!”
However, back in Germany, Siggi’s problems were not over. To prepare him for the transfusion, Siggi’s doctors began to administer a strong dose of chemotherapy to destroy his existing blood stem cells, ready to welcome the new ones. For any recipient, this is a critical stage in the process, and for Siggi it was the point of no return – his body had no defences, and if he did not receive Jackie’s healthy blood stem cells quickly, he was unlikely to survive.
As a courier arrived to escort Jackie’s blood stem cells from London to Frankfurt, news broke of the 2016 terrorist attack in France, and the courier was not able to leave the UK. As Siggi’s wife sat at his bedside, doctors were very concerned that the blood stem cells would not get to him in time.
The next day, Jackie’s blood stem cells finally arrived in Frankfurt, and the transplant immediately went ahead. Siggi then began a slow process of recovery, as doctors monitored whether his body was accepting the new stem cells.
Siggi said: “Drop by drop, Jackie’s blood stem cells gave me my life back”.
UK law states that whilst donors and their patients can communicate following the transplant, it must remain anonymous for at least the first two years. After this, if both parties are in agreement, their identities can be revealed and they can make arrangements to meet.
Jackie said: “All I knew of Siggi is that he had a son and daughter my age, and a grandson – and he used to play ice hockey when he was a young man! It’s one of the reasons I was so excited to meet him, to hear his life story.”
“When he arrived, there were lots of tears and lots of cuddling! They had made me a photo album with pictures of Siggi during his treatment which just made me cry instantly, and they bought me a little angel necklace because they say I’m his angel. It was just so lovely and I will treasure it forever.”
Siggi said: “It was beautiful. We hugged, and we both cried. It was like a fairy tale”.
“Jackie will come and visit me and my family in Germany next year to celebrate my birthday. She has lost people close to her to cancer, and was so happy she could do something to help me. She is just a good hearted person”.
Whilst Siggi’s story has a happy ending, that is sadly not the case for many people in his position. Only 2% of the population of the UK are registered as potential blood stem cell donors, yet every 20 minutes somebody in the UK is diagnosed with blood cancer.
To people thinking of joining the register, Jackie’s message is simple: “What if it were you? If you’re ill, would you want someone to be able to help save your life? If so, you should be on that register. Because it might be you, or someone you love, one day.”
“Having done it myself, it’s just absolutely wonderful. I think if everyone could get the opportunity to do it, they should - there is no better feeling than to save someone’s life. It’s not just about the difference you can make to someone’s life, it’s a truly life-affirming experience.”
How you can help
If you’d like to register as a potential blood stem cell donor you can check your eligibility and request a home swab kit today.
Anyone aged between 17-55 and in general good health can go on standby as a potential lifesaver. If you're not eligible or you're already registered, why not check the other ways to get involved in the fight against blood cancer or help us cover donor registration costs?