My turn to save a life

AFTER 15 years of being on the Anthony Nolan Trust's bone marrow register, STEPHEN WHITE learned he was a potential match with someone dying from leukaemia.

By Tracey Sparling

AFTER 15 years of being on the Anthony Nolan Trust's bone marrow register, STEPHEN WHITE learned he was a potential match with someone dying from leukaemia. Today he describes the process of donating bone marrow which he went through this year- and dispels some of the widely held myths.

THE letter came out of the blue.

It was the Saturday before the May Bank Holiday and there on the mat was an envelope with an Anthony Nolan Trust sticker on it.

I opened it, and was shocked to discover that after 15 years of being on the donor register, the trust had found a possible match. They urgently wanted me to make contact - someone was dying, and there was a one-in-four chance that I could help.

Like most people, I have moved house a few times in the past 15 years. Like many, I have not always updated everyone with my new details. The Anthony Nolan people had been trying to contact me for some time.

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Later that day, I told my parents about the letter - but they knew all about it already. When registering I must have volunteered their address, and not sure whether I would want to donate bone marrow, they gave the Anthony Nolan Trust my address, but not my phone number.

I made contact as soon as I could - and within a week had given blood at my GP's surgery, and posted it off to the Trust in a special delivery envelope.

By then I had also completed several questionnaires about my health and sexual practices - am I HIV positive or carry the Hepatitis B or C virus?; have I ever injected drugs?; have I ever had sex with a man?; have I ever taken money or drugs in exchange for sex?

All blood is tested, but if you answer yes to any of the above, and a lot more, you don't get any further.

My decision to donate bone marrow brought varied reactions from friends and colleagues. It's surprising just how many are put off because of their fear of needles.

Some suggested I was being brave. “It's very painful you know,” they said. Others were surprised that I planned to go ahead. “Why would you want to when it's for someone you don't even know?” I couldn't understand either reaction. If you're not scared of something (I just don't happen to fear needles, doctors or hospitals), how can it be brave?

And to be asked to give another human being the chance to live, whether you know them or not, seemed to me, as they say, a “no-brainer”, in fact a privilege. I asked the sceptics if they ever saw a baby being swept away in a river, would they jump in to help. Of course they would.

So how is this any different?

I felt very positive about it. I just hoped that after getting so far that I would be a match and be asked to donate. The Trust is used to this and warned me not to get my hopes up; telling me there was a good chance I wouldn't be selected.

I listened to them, but all along knew somehow that I would be called.

At the end of June I had been in London all day when I returned home to find an envelope bearing an Anthony Nolan Trust sticker. I pounced on it, tore it apart and was delighted to learn I was a match.

There was an added urgency about this now. “My patient” was very ill - all I was told was that she was an adult female - and needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible - her operation had been set for the end of July.

Donating bone marrow involves a two-night stay in a London hospital, but first I needed to have a medical. I travelled to the London Clinic opposite Regents Park to meet Professor Gareth Morgan, who will extract the bone marrow. He immediately put me at ease; we talked about sport, newspapers, travel. I feel I'm in good hands.

The medical involves another questionnaire, some basic checks (blood pressure, weight, height, some family health questions; do I smoke?; do I drink?); a chest X-ray and an ECG - all designed to prove I am fit enough to undergo the operation which will be conducted under general anaesthetic.

Fortunately, I'm pretty healthy and from healthy stock. I passed.

I was then handed consent forms - they need consent to extract the bone marrow; and to use it without fee for the transplant and for research. But first I was warned that if I sign, I'm obliged to go ahead.

I suddenly felt much closer to “my patient” and without hesitation I signed.

A day or two later I was called again by the Trust. They needed me to give more blood; they wanted to do more tests. Can I go to my GP again? This time they arranged courier collection.

And then came the easy bit, the bone marrow donation. I report to the London Clinic one Monday afternoon, am assigned a private room with my own bathroom, and sit down to watch the first Test against India.

A nurse tells me she has to take a swab from my nose to check for MRSA, then proudly tells me she's worked here for ten years and never had a case.

I meet one of the clinic's consultants, my anaesthetist, and a host of friendly nurses.

I am served a three-course meal, with the option of wine. I've stayed in far worse hotels.

I settle into bed early, and am told not to eat or drink after midnight.

Early next morning I am given the go-ahead to take a shower, and then asked to change into a groovy blue spotty smock and dressing gown, put on a pair of anti-DVT (deep vein thrombosis) stockings and some blue slippers.

It's about 7.30am when we walk to the operating theatre. I'm asked to hop on to the bed and a needle is inserted into the backs of both my hands - “just a small scratch” - and I am asked to lay back and relax. I'm waiting for the “count to 10”, but it doesn't come.

The next thing I know I can hear nurses calling my name, and I wake up. It's all over.

A litre of bone marrow has been extracted from my hip/pelvic bone; Prof Morgan is pleased with the way the operation has gone.

I have four small puncture wounds at either side of the base of my back. I prod the area, it feels a bit tender but it's nothing to worry about.

I am taken back to my room attached to a saline drip; my blood pressure and temperature are checked throughout the day. I am offered painkillers, but decline because I don't have any pain. My throat feels a little sore and my mouth is dry. I drink lots of water and enjoy the blackcurrant sorbet I am served for dessert at lunchtime along with soup, roast pork and all the trimmings.

I feel a little tired but proud of myself.

The next morning my dressings are changed and I'm visited by a donor welfare officer from the Trust, who explains the protocols of confidentiality surrounding the patient. I can write an anonymous letter and she can reply if she wants.

I am told I'll be kept informed of her condition and if she survives, but if the transplant is successful it will be at least two years before I learn anything more about her - and that's only if she agrees. On the other hand, if the transplant is unsuccessful and “my patient” dies, I will be told. I say I want to pass a message to her; to wish her well.

I'm ordered to take things easy, take a week or two off work, and told to expect to feel extremely tired while my body recovers. And then I'm discharged and I catch the train home.

Forget all those stories you may have heard about donating bone marrow being incredibly painful. It's no worse than the stiffness you might get after a game of football, or when you've done an afternoon's work in the garden.

And, honestly, if this is all it takes to save a life, I'd do it all again tomorrow.

Today, the Trust has almost 400,000 names on its donor register. It has given more than 5,000 people the chance of life.


The Trust is always looking for more people to join its register, and particularly wants more young men, and people from ethnic minorities. To join you must be aged under 40 and in good health. You complete a form and a small sample (about a teaspoonful) of blood is taken.

To volunteer, or get more details, ring 020 7284 1234 or visit

THE Anthony Nolan Trust was set up by Shirley Nolan after her son, Anthony, born in 1971, was diagnosed as suffering from Wiscott-Aldrich syndrome, a rare deficiency of the immune system.

The only chance of saving his life would be a bone marrow transplant, so in 1974 she started a register.

Anthony never found a donor, and died in 1979. At that time, the trust established in his name had 30,000 registered possible donors and 80 children on the waiting list for matches.

Supporters include Sir Trevor McDonald, Mike Catt, Lawrence Dallaglio, and

Sir Richard Branson.

BONE marrow is the soft, jelly-like tissue that is found in the hollow centre of all large bones. It contains blood stem cells which are essential for blood production.

There are two methods of donation. A bone marrow harvest requires a two-night stay in hospital and under general anaesthetic the cells are extracted from the pelvic bones by sterile needle and syringe.

No surgical incision is required and the blood stem cells replace themselves within 21 days.

A peripheral blood stem cell donation encourages stem cells from the bone marrow into the bloodstream.

Five days before the collection the donor receives daily injections of a growth factor. The cells can then be collected in one or two collections lasting four to five hours each.