On 12th May 2015, Hayleigh (a community nurse working in Aberdeenshire) celebrated International Nurses Day with a difference – by donating her stem cells to a complete stranger. Today, in the run-up to International Nurses Day 2017, she’s sharing her amazing story:
I first signed up to Anthony Nolan in 2005, when a young boy from the town where I lived needed a bone marrow transplant. There was a drive by the local nursery that he attended, and in the local newspaper; this inspired me to send for an information pack.
Several years later there was another drive for a teenage girl from my area, who was also in need of a transplant – that spurred me on to update my details as I had moved home twice since my original registration.
At the start of January 2015 I received a voicemail and text message from Anthony Nolan asking me to get in touch. I was at work, so called them in my lunch break. I spoke to a representative who explained I may be a match for someone who was in need of a donation, and they asked if I would still be willing to donate if required.
Being a match
I answered a few preliminary health questions and was told a more in-depth questionnaire would be sent to me along with tubes for a blood test.
When I returned to my office, I shared the content of the call with my colleagues.
I am a NHS community nurse within a rural nursing team, and at that time I also worked for a palliative care charity, so I had some knowledge of bone marrow transplantation. But having never worked in that field, I didn’t really know all that it involved. We discussed it within our team, and there were mixed views but overall a lot of encouragement!
After completing a further health questionnaire and posting back more blood test screenings, I received a telephone call a few weeks later saying that it looked like I was a good match. They asked when I would be free to come down to London for a medical.
I attended a medical at UCH London accompanied by my mum at the end of February; this involved more blood tests, a chest X-ray, and an appointment with a consultant to explain and consent to the procedure. They wished to collect the cells via centrifuge, which was a relief! They informed me that this is the most common way of donating.
I would receive G-CSF injections for 4/5 days before the process, and this would stimulate my bone marrow to overproduce and release the cells into my bloodstream. This would be collected from one of my arms by the machine, and what wasn’t needed returned into my other arm. I flew down and back in the same day, but everything was organised for me and ran like clockwork.
I received a call the following week saying all was well with my medical, and that a Healthcare at Home nurse would be in touch soon to arrange dates to visit me at my home or workplace and start the G-CSF injections. The donation date had been set for March.
However just days before I was due to start the injections, I received an injury during a netball game that resulted in a fracture to my wrist. As soon as this was confirmed by X-ray I phoned the Anthony Nolan team and was devastated to find out that I would not be fit to donate while I had a fracture.
The doctors at Anthony Nolan take donor health very seriously, and as there was a very small chance that receiving the G-CSF while repairing a broken bone could be detrimental to my health, I could not donate. I felt so guilty that I might have ruined someone’s only chance at survival.
I was told that while I was medically unfit they would seek to find another donor and consult with the transplant team for the best outcome.
My first stem cell donation – International Nurses Day
After 6 weeks, I got in touch with the Anthony Nolan team to confirm that my cast had been removed. The consultant telephoned me to check that I was well, and to check there were no changes from my medical. I was informed that the recipient was still in need of a transplant and that a new date of mid-May could be set. Luckily I didn’t need another medical, as the new date was still within the timeframe allowed. I was so relieved that the recipient had remained stable enough, despite the delay.
The healthcare at home nurse got back in touch, and visited me at home for a few days administering the G-CSF injections. The dose was calculated against my weight, so I received three at a time to get the required dose.
I didn’t really have many side effects from the injections, apart from a general achy feeling, but the day before the transplant the achy feeling increased, especially around my ‘big bones’ like my legs, hips and chest. It was relieved with pain medication and didn’t stop me going about my day.
I travelled back down to London, escorted by my husband, and attended the hospital that I would donate to ‘check in’ and receive another dose of G-CSF injections.
We then went to the nearby hotel that Anthony Nolan had booked for us, left our bags, then went out to catch a West End show! (Leaving our two young kids at home with Grandma meant we were going to make the best of our childfree time!)
After breakfast the following morning, we attended the hospital to start the donation, we were settled into a room with about 6 other beds and there were two other people donating for Anthony Nolan there too, which was nice. I had been nervous about ‘getting hooked up’ to the machine and at my earlier medical poor venous access had been discussed, but it all went without a hitch, and once comfortable in the bed, I was connected up in no time.
It was strange seeing the machine collecting and returning my blood, but fascinating at the same time.
The day passed really quickly and by early afternoon the machine beeped saying it was finished with me. They sent a sample to the labs to see how many cells had been collected and while we waited for the results a volunteer from Anthony Nolan visited, gave me a lovely goody bag, and thanked me for what I had done. A nice touch, and much appreciated!
Unfortunately due to the large amount of cells needed for my recipient I was told I would be needed to come back the following day and donate again. It wasn’t a problem as we all knew this was a possibility, so I received another set of G-CSF injections, and left for an afternoon of sightseeing in London and relaxing at the hotel, before returning to the hospital for round two.
On the second day of donation, everything went well but I started to feel a bit unwell just as the donation was coming to an end. Nothing serious, just a bit queasy and restless. The ward staff took me off the machine and gave me some medication to restore my calcium and potassium that had dropped a bit low, and explained that was why I was feeling the way I was. The staff were all superb. One of the days I was donating was International Nurses Day, and the nursing union came in and gave the staff cupcakes and goody bags, I hope this gets celebrated more in my area, cakes are always welcome!
Again they sent a sample down to the laboratory to check the levels I had produced, and I was delighted to be told that I had produced way more than what was needed. They had hoped for 5000 and I had managed 8000! I was now feeling fine so was free to start my journey home.
It was a bit of a mad rush getting across London to Heathrow and catching our flight home, but we made it and I was so glad to have my husband with me to drive me home once our flight landed; I was really tired. A strangely exhilarated type of tired.
I had the next day off work to recuperate, and I probably should have taken a little bit more time because I was a bit shakey at work the following morning. But I was only on for one shift; then I took it easy at the weekend and by Monday I felt back to my usual self. Overall it was a wonderful experience, it felt hopeful and after years of palliative care nursing, it was really nice to see hope.
After my stem cell donation
I think about the person I donated to quite often. I was told that it was a female over the age of 16 but that’s all I know. I received an update from Anthony Nolan saying that although she had some complications to begin with, she was doing well. Then last summer I received a notecard passed on via Anthony Nolan from my recipient saying thank you, and that she had returned to work. I treasure this card dearly – I took the opportunity to send on a Christmas card from her ‘anonymous donor’, and it would be nice to get in touch one day but I know that is not always possible.
If I were to say anything to somebody considering joining the register it would be to just do it. If it was your loved one needing something, so simple and easy to give, that could save their life, you would take it without hesitation. So give with that same thought. I would also remind people to update their details when they move as it’s so simple to do online!