'˜German donor saved my life'
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 meeting him.
Not only does he owe a priceless debt of gratitude, the pair are now ‘genetic twins’ who share the same DNA.
Jacqueline, from Germany, twice donated her stem cells to Mark to help him overcome a rare blood disease after a worldwide search for a 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 Sheffield to meet Mark and his family, including his young daughter Iona and baby son Magnus.
Their meeting last year was the happy ending to almost a decade of extraordinarily-difficult challenges for Mark.
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 transformed by the series of near-death experiences he has been through in the past few years.
“What I have gone through has made me a better, more understanding person. 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 50, the business owner says he had ‘an easy life’ blessed with good health up to the age of 40 but in 2008, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. He started getting headaches and began bruising and bleeding easily and things got to the point where he was fainting when standing up.
Mark 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.
“I was in for a couple of weeks and they immediately gave me four units of red blood and two units of platelets. But the only true cure is a bone marrow transplant.”
His sister offered to be a donor but turned out not to be a match. With the search continuing for a donor, Mark 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 Mark was told the only hope of a cure would be a stem cell transplant.
With no suitable donor available in Britain via the Anthony Nolan donor register, a worldwide search of international stem cell registers was undertaken and a match found in Germany with Jacqueline, a 19-year-old who had signed up to the register only weeks before. The transplant means that Mark’s immune system and blood group are now identical to Jacqueline’s.
After undergoing high dose chemotherapy to prepare him for the infusion of stem cells, in March 2013, Mark 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 Mark’s transplant had failed as his blood count started to drop 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 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.
Mark said: “The hospital called and said you have a fungal lung infection, that must be resolved very quickly. Within one hour of the call 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 anti-fungals, 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, Mark has been able to start living a normal life once again – going on to have his second child Magnus and even running the London Marathon to raise £6,000 for the Anthony Nolan charity.
Under the rules which cover contact between transplant patients and donors, after a year Mark was allowed to write a letter of thanks to Jacqueline and after two years they were allowed to exchange personal details and subsequently agreed to meet.
“She was coming over to London and said she would like to come and meet us in Sheffield. 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 have a little boy.
“Things had got to the stage before where I had written a letter to give to my little girl in case I didn’t live.
“I thought she must have had someone in her family with a blood cancer or disorder for her to donate. But in Germany many more people are on the donor register.
“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.”