This summmer, donor Paul flew to the US to meet his stem cell recipient Jeff
“Ideally Jeff would never have been ill, he wouldn’t have needed a transplant and we would never have met, but out of it has come a friendship for life.”
In summer 2023, Paul Matthews met Jeff Tomczak, the man who had received his stem cells via a transplant three and a half years earlier. It was a key moment in a life-changing journey that began, when Paul, a 51-year-old married father from Hillfield, Solihull and a regular giver of blood, picked up a DKMS leaflet from signed up as a stem cell donor.
“That was it until the middle of 2020, when I got an email from DKMS saying I was one of several possible matches for someone needing a transplant,” explains Paul. “I had blood tests done at my local hospital, and after DKMS had done the vital ‘science bit’, I was told I was the best match for the intended recipient: a 10 out of 10 match.
“I knew it could be a chance of life for someone who was ill.”
Paul had several medical tests to ensure he was medically fit. These were followed by injections to do at home to prepare his body for donation. Paul doesn’t especially like needles so he got his wife Louise to do them, but says “They really didn’t hurt as the needle used for them is so fine.”
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, DKMS arranged for Paul to travel safely to London for further tests. “I found myself travelling down on my birthday!” he remembers.
It was time for Paul to donate his stem cells.
“My employer was really good and let me have a couple of days off work,” he says. “DKMS arranged for me to come down to London again. My daughter was going to come with me and go shopping, but all the shops were shut due to the pandemic! I was in the hospital for about six hours in bed having my stem cells taken, it’s very simple. I had my tablet with me to watch films, and I was very well looked after with food and drinks.
“At the end of the day they had gathered enough of my stem cells, so I was able to go straight home. At this point, they were able to tell me that my recipient was male, in his 40s and living in the US. I just couldn’t have lived with myself, if I hadn’t helped”.
Strict regulations protect the anonymity of donors and recipients immediately after a stem cell donation is made. Paul had always wanted to get in touch with his recipient, so a year after his donation, he sent an anonymised email via DKMS, wishing him well. An anonymised email came back, saying it would be great to be in touch when they could.
“In June 2022, we were able to swap contact details,” explains Paul. “For the very first time, I knew my donor was called Jeff, and we became friends via Facebook. I found out he is 44 and works for a science and innovation company. He lives in Wisconsin, is married to Balinda and also has grown-up kids of a similar age to mine.
“This year, my wife and I were going to the States to do a cruise from Miami. Jeff and Balinda flew to join us and we spent two days together. We got on like a house on fire! We found we had a lot in common. We both have Polish heritage, we’re a similar age, both like sports and beer, and we both have the same sense of humour.”
Jeff says: “It was a blessing to be able to thank my donor in person, but it is really difficult to find words to show my appreciation. Not only did Paul save my life, he saved someone’s father, husband, son, brother, and friend. My family and I are forever grateful. Balinda and I enjoyed our time with Paul, Louise, and their son Josh. We had a lot of fun with them and look forward to meeting again.
“Thankfully there are so many good people, like Paul, on the stem cell register. Unfortunately, there is not a perfect match available to everyone in need. Together, we can raise awareness about the simplicity of joining the register, and the donation process as well.”
Paul and Jeff are determined to meet up again. Whether that is in the UK, which Jeff has never visited, or further afield, they’ve agreed that on the first day they’ll both wear their special t-shirts. Paul and Jeff are now, undeniably, ‘Bone Marrow Buddies For Life’.
DKMS spokesperson Deborah Hyde said: “We’re so grateful to everyone who supports DKMS’s mission to delete blood cancer. Paul is an inspirational example of how becoming a stem cell donor can give people needing a transplant a second chance at life.”