‘I saved a stranger’s life’ A woman’s stem-cell donation kept a man alive
With World Marrow Donor Day celebrated this month, Carey van Raalte tells how her stemcell donation helped one dad survive cancer
Carey, 53, a floral artist and landscaper, has four grown-up children and two grandchildren. She lives on a farm on KZN’S North Coast with her husband Tony. “I was in my thirties, visiting a blood bank to donate blood, when I was asked if I’d like to be a bone-marrow donor, too. I felt a great sense of joy in the idea that a simple donation could help save a life, so I signed up and didn’t think about it again, until a decade later…
In 2008, I got a call from a lady named Veronica at the SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR). It’s a day I’ll never forget. I was told I was a possible match for someone suffering from a deadly blood disease. She’d barely got out the words ‘would you donate?’ before I interrupted to agree to it. My heart went out to this poor person and their family, who were pinning all hopes on a stranger. I prayed I would be able to help. I never realised that only 30% of patients find a match with a family member; the rest rely on an unrelated donor, and the chance of finding one through a registry, I later discovered, is a dismal one in 100 000. I couldn’t comprehend the heartache this person’s family was going through. Imagine knowing your loved one needs help, but being unable to help them yourself? It’s an unbearable situation.
Numerous blood tests confirmed I was a match, so the donation was set for September. Though I was told there aren’t any guarantees that a transplant would work, I was still thrilled to have the chance to help save a stranger’s life – a stranger I was desperate to meet, but our identities couldn’t be revealed to one another for at least three years after the transplant – sometimes more. The SABMR set up this rule to protect the donor and recipient from potential coercion, and from any inappropriate behaviour. The process is fraught with emotion, with so much on the line, so while it was disappointing that I couldn’t meet the recipient, I did understand why.
Sadly, I was told that the patient had fallen ill just before the donation, and
couldn’t undergo a transplant. I was on tenterhooks, praying for a speedy recovery for the patient, who, after a month-long battle, was well enough for the transplant to proceed. It’s amazing how you can root for someone to get better, though you’ve never shared a word with them. It was an emotional roller coaster for me before we began!
The SABMR covered all costs of sending me and my mom to Cape Town, where the registry is based. Before my stem cells were harvested, I visited Mediclinic Constantiaberg as an outpatient for a series of quick injections under the skin in my stomach every day for four days. These injections of Neupogen, a synthetic form of a naturally occurring growth hormone, would help increase my stem-cell production. On the fifth day, I was admitted into the hospital’s Sunflower Bone Marrow Ward. It was harrowing being walked into a ward of sick patients, mostly children, battling
‘He wouldn’t be alive without my donation’
dreadful cancers. The only peace I could take out of this terrible situation was knowing I was doing my bit as a donor.
The word ‘harvesting’ sounds scary, but it’s not at all. To me, it’s a little like donating blood, except you have a needle in each arm instead of just one arm. Blood leaves your body from one needle, going through a machine that separates out stem cells and transfers them into a bag, before the blood is returned to your body through the other needle. My sessions took eight hours each over two days and I was lucky to have no side effects, except being tired.
Before I was discharged after my last session, a stranger stood at the door of my ward. She held up a cooler box and said, ‘This is the life you’ve given to save someone else’s, so thank you!’ Before I could reply, the courier said, ‘Sorry, I have a plane to catch’ – live stem-cell tissue must be transplanted in 72 hours.
It was a year before I heard any news about the patient. On every donation anniversary, I’d call SABMR to ask about ‘my’ patient, who I learnt was a man. Was he okay? They’d always say, ‘He’s doing well’; a relief! I was still eager to meet him and the feeling was mutual, but we had to settle for anonymous letters. I realised he was married as he wrote, ‘my wife says you must be an angel!’
Nine years after my donation, in August 2017, we got the green light to meet, so my husband Tony joined me at SABMR’S offices at Groote Schuur Hospital. I was excited and nervous as the door opened... and there he was! Louwtjie Vosloo, now 63, his lovely wife Andrè, and their 32-year-old daughter Nadine had travelled from Pretoria to meet me. I got a great big bear hug from Louwtjie, lifting me off my feet, followed by an emphatic ‘thank you’. It was so surreal; to think he wouldn’t be standing there if I hadn’t signed up as a donor. I can’t describe how I felt hearing his family thank me for saving his life. It was overwhelmingly emotional for all of us.
The Vosloos are a wonderful family and they’ve endured a lot of hardship. Louwtjie had lymphoma, and after he received my stem cells it took him a year to recover fully. He’s approaching retirement now from his career at a bank. He flies a plane as a hobby, he’s healthy and takes no meds, which is amazing. He calls me his ‘Crazy Sister’ – he says I’m the sister he never had – and I call him ‘Big Brother’. Our families stay in touch. Andrè sends lovely messages of gratitude every week and, like me, their daughter Nadine has become a great ambassador for the cause. It’s been the start of a wonderful new friendship.
I now take every chance I get to encourage others to register as donors, often speaking at events for the SABMR. When you can only stand by helplessly as a loved one fights for their life, it’s heartening to know someone you’ve never even met can step in where you can’t. I’m just glad that I got to be that someone for Louwtjie and his family.”
Carey and Louwtjie met for the first time nine years after she donated stem cells to him