‘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

Woman & Home (South Africa) - - Contents -

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!

Har­vest­ing hope

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.

Mak­ing con­tact

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

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