‘I owe my life to an amazing stranger’
FORMER PRIMARY SCHOOL WORKER DENISE INDEBTED TO HELP OF GERMAN DONOR WHO PROVIDED SECOND CHANCE
‘ICAN’T ever find the words to thank her. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”
Denise Bodie owes Iris Graf her life.
She was preparing for death; preparing to say goodbye to her family.
But, thanks to Iris, she has been able to see her grandchildren grow up.
Thanks to her, she was given a second chance. Thanks to her, she’s ‘looking forward to a brighter future.’
The astonishing thing about this story – about two women who share a special bond – is that the pair were strangers, living nearly 600 miles apart.
They weren’t allowed to even know each other’s names until two years after Iris saved Denise’s life.
It’s a heart-warming tale of selflessness, eternal gratitude and hope.
Mum-of-two Denise, 57, from Marus Bridge, Wigan, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia just five days before Christmas in 2011. She was 49 at the time. She’d been unwell for months. After eight months of chemotherapy, Denise went into remission.
Just a few months later, her cancer returned.
Denise, understandably, was devastated.
She was told she would need a stem cell transplant. Her health deteriorated, which led to the transplant being postponed.
Things got much worse.
The chemotherapy caused locked-in syndrome.
Denise – a former primary school worker – could see, hear and feel, but couldn’t move and could only utter a few words.
She was dying. When her family came to visit her, they thought they were saying goodbye.
But, amazingly, Denise’s speech and movement slowly started to return and she was deemed well enough to have a transplant on December 18, 2013.
A matching donor had been found – Iris, 45, from Heidelberg in Germany.
Iris donated stem cells, which were transported to Manchester Royal Infirmary, where Denise was being treated.
On the day of Denise’s transplant, Iris sent her a Christmas card.
It read: “I hope this will be the best Christmas present you will ever receive, love from your Christmas angel.”
Denise, who spent that Christmas in hospital, said: “I was in isolation and very ill. My family came to visit me, but I don’t really remember that much of it.
“My recovery hasn’t been straight forward. I’ve spent over 70 weeks in hospital since I was diagnosed, but I’m hopeful that my health will improve and thanks to Iris I’m looking forward to a brighter future. I have a quality of life I couldn’t have dreamed of in that hospital bed in 2013, when I was told I was dying.”
Following a transplant, in order to protect both the recipient and the donor, the identity of both parties must be kept confidential for two years.
They can communicate through anonymous letters and cards. After two years, they’re allowed to meet in person.
Denise and Iris spoke anonymously, before meeting.
The first Christmas after her transplant, Denise bought two Christmas angels.
She kept one for herself and sent one to Iris. Every Christmas, they both put the angels up in their home.
Denise travelled to Germany to meet Iris for the first time in September 2016.
The two have since formed a special friendship, with Iris travelling to Wigan to visit Denise the following year.
In August this year, Denise went with her sister Mandy to Germany to visit Iris and her family.
“It was so nice to meet her husband, Jurgen, and her three children,” Denise said. “Iris took us to The Black Forest where she grew up and showed us her family home.
“We will always stay in touch and maybe one year my family and I might visit her at Christmas time. She’s such a warm-hearted, kind, loving person and we just get on so well. We are genetic twins now.”
When they met for the first time, Denise bought Iris a silver bracelet with an angel charm.
“I can’t ever find the words to thank Iris for her gift of life,” Denise added. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here. I’m so happy to see my grandchildren grow up, which is only possible because of selfless donors, like Iris, who sign up to the stem cell register, willing to save the life of people like me.”
The Anthony Nolan charity finds matching donors for people with blood cancer and gives them a second chance.
They also carry out groundbreaking research to save more lives and provide information and support to patients after a stem cell transplant, through its clinical nurse specialists and psychologists, who help guide patients through their recovery.
Denise Bodie, right, with stem cell donor Iris Graf
Denise with her daughter Natalie on Christmas Day, 2013