Mark meets teen bone mar­row donor from Ger­many

Yorkshire Post - - FRONT PAGE - ■ Email: ■ Twit­ter: @chris­burn_­post

MARK RIT­SON will al­ways have a unique bond with Jac­que­line Harf­mann, the young wo­man who saved his life from thou­sands of miles away and with­out know­ing him. Not only does he owe a price­less debt of grat­i­tude, the pair are now ‘ge­netic twins’ who share the same DNA.

Harf­mann, from Ger­many, twice do­nated her stem cells to Rit­son to help him over­come a rare blood dis­ease af­ter a world­wide search for a suit­able donor.

Three years af­ter her self­less act, prompted by her see­ing a poster ask­ing ‘Why don’t you save some­one’s life?’, she trav­elled to York­shire to meet Rit­son and his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his young daugh­ter Iona and baby son Magnus, in his home city of Sh­effield.

Their meet­ing last year was the happy end­ing to al­most a decade of ex­traor­di­nar­ily-dif­fi­cult chal­lenges for Rit­son.

Now a proud fa­ther shar­ing his story to en­cour­age more peo­ple to be­come blood and stem cell donors, he says his out­look on life has been com­pletely al­tered by the se­ries of near-death ex­pe­ri­ences that he has en­dured in the past few years.

“What I have gone through has made me a bet­ter, more un­der­stand­ing per­son,” he says. “I go walk­ing and fish­ing in the coun­try­side and can just be over­whelmed with joy at the beauty of the world and the fact I am still here.

“I never ever in a mil­lion years would have thought like that be­fore. It sounds bizarre but I am al­most glad it hap­pened to me.”

Now aged 50, the busi­ness owner says he had “an easy life” blessed with good health up the age of 40. In 2008, things took a dra­matic turn for the worse.

He started to de­velop headaches and be­gan bruis­ing and bleed­ing eas­ily and things got to the point where he was faint­ing when stand­ing up.

Rit­son was even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed with the rare blood dis­ease se­vere aplas­tic anaemia, which means the bone mar­row does not pro­duce enough platelets or red and white blood cells. The life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion leaves suf­fer­ers vul­ner­a­ble to un­con­trolled bleed­ing and in­fec­tions.

“It is only two in a mil­lion peo­ple who get it, it is ex­tremely rare. I was so ill, I was grate­ful I had gone into hospi­tal. I was in for a cou­ple of weeks and they gave im­me­di­ately me four units of red blood and two units of platelets. But the only true cure is a bone mar­row trans­plant,” he says.

His sis­ter of­fered to be a donor but turned out not to be a match. With the search con­tin­u­ing for a donor, Rit­son un­der­went 104 blood and platelet trans­fu­sions and had two bouts of ag­gres­sive im­munother­apy treat­ment. This ap­peared to have kept the dis­ease at bay but, in 2012, it re­turned and Rit­son was told the only hope of a cure would be a stem cell trans­plant.

With no suit­able donor avail­able in Bri­tain, a world­wide search of in­ter­na­tional stem cell regis­ters was un­der­taken and a match found in Ger­many with Harf­mann, a 19-year-old who had signed up to the reg­is­ter only weeks be­fore. The trans­plant means that his im­mune sys­tem and blood group are now iden­ti­cal to Jac­que­line’s.

Af­ter un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy to pre­pare him for the in­fu­sion of stem cells, in March 2013, Rit­son un­der­went his first trans­plant. Just five days af­ter leav­ing hospi­tal af­ter six weeks in iso­la­tion, his wife Lisa gave birth to their daugh­ter Iona. She was born pre­ma­turely and weighed just over three pounds, mean­ing she needed her own stay in hospi­tal.

At the same time, it soon be­came clear that Rit­son’s trans­plant had failed and he was read­mit­ted to hospi­tal again. “They had to go back to my donor to ask whether she would be will­ing to try again. I had to wait for two weeks and then we had con­fir­ma­tion she would do it. This was about four to five weeks af­ter Iona was born. A bone mar­row trans­plant can be a very dif­fi­cult, ag­gres­sive treat­ment but it of­ten of­fers the only hope for peo­ple with blood can­cers or dis­or­ders.

“The hospi­tal called and said ‘you have a fun­gal lung in­fec­tion’. Within one hour I was back in iso­la­tion. The doc­tors were de­cid­ing whether to re­move the in­fected area of lung, but I had no platelets or white cells.

“It was a very wor­ry­ing time, as there is a re­luc­tance to even start a trans­plant when a pa­tient is so ill. In the end they just did the trans­plant and treated me with very toxic an­ti­fun­gals, be­cause ul­ti­mately with­out it I wouldn’t have had any chance to have sur­vived. Af­ter an­other very dif­fi­cult six weeks in iso­la­tion, in­clud­ing more in­fec­tions, man­ag­ing badly dam­aged kid­neys from large quan­ti­ties of chemo­ther­apy and even a two-week at­tack of hic­cups, fi­nally this time it worked.”

But his or­deal was not yet over af­ter the sec­ond trans­plant in Septem­ber 2013. For 18 months af­ter­wards, due to his weak­ened state, there was a se­ries of se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tions and in­fec­tions which even re­sulted in him break­ing ribs as a re­sult of vi­o­lent cough­ing fits.

Once his new im­mune sys­tem started work­ing prop­erly, Rit­son has been able to start liv­ing a nor­mal life again – go­ing on to have his sec­ond child Magnus and even run­ning the Lon­don Marathon to raise £6,000 for the An­thony Nolan char­ity, which works to save the lives of peo­ple with blood can­cers or dis­ease by find­ing suit­able donors.

Un­der the rules cover­ing con­tact between trans­plant pa­tients and donors, Rit­son was al­lowed to write a let­ter of thanks to Jac­que­line af­ter a year and, af­ter two years, they were al­lowed to ex­change per­sonal de­tails and sub­se­quently agreed to meet.

“With­out her, I would not have sur­vived. But with­out the blood trans­fu­sions be­fore, I wouldn’t have lived ei­ther. They kept me alive to have the treat­ment and then the trans­plant saved my life. Cer­tainly with­out the sec­ond trans­plant, I would have quite pos­si­bly not have sur­vived for long.

“She stayed with us for two days. It was over­whelm­ing in a way. She was only 21 or 22 and she had saved my life and en­abled me to carry on see­ing my lit­tle girl grow up and to have a lit­tle boy.

“I thought she must have had some­one in her fam­ily with a blood cancer or dis­or­der for her to do­nate. But she said there had been no spe­cial rea­son, she al­ready do­nated blood and had just hap­pened to see a poster say­ing ‘Why don’t you save some­one’s life?’ So at the age of 19, she did. I can’t imag­ine a bet­ter feel­ing in your life than to have saved some­body and let them have a full life af­ter­wards – what bet­ter gift could you give to some­body?”

Harf­man says: “Af­ter the first trans­plant I was so full of hope that ev­ery­thing would be fine. Then they told me it had failed, but there was a pos­si­bil­ity to give it an­other try. They said I could think about it, but I was sure in that very sec­ond that I wanted to try. I didn’t want to let him down.

“The whole jour­ney to Sh­effield, I felt so ner­vous. Then I fi­nally got to meet him and his won­der­ful fam­ily. Those amaz­ing few days re­in­forced my feel­ing; that I did the right thing.”

With­out her, I would not have sur­vived. Meet­ing her was over­whelm­ing. She had en­abled me to carry on see­ing my lit­tle girl grow up and to have a lit­tle boy. What bet­ter gift could you give to some­body? Mark Rit­son, trans­plant pa­tient


SEC­OND CHANCE: Mark Rit­son is en­joy­ing fam­ily life af­ter be­ing saved by bone mar­row donor Jac­que­line Harf­mann, 19, from Ger­many.

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