Heather Ross is an inspiring Anthony Nolan volunteer. She’s given over 100 talks in schools and colleges as part of our Register & Be a Lifesaver programme. R&Be helps to teach 16–18-year-olds about the importance of donating bone marrow, blood and organs, and all the talks are given by amazing volunteers like Heather. We caught up with her to find out how she reached this brilliant milestone, and what inspired her to get involved with our work.
How did you first hear about Anthony Nolan?
I became involved with Anthony Nolan by default 13 years ago, in 2002. My triplet sister Liz was on the bone marrow donor register and she came up as a match for a patient in need of a transplant. Liz had just had her first daughter, Lucy, and for a year after having a baby you are not allowed to donate.
Liz was devastated at the thought of letting the patient down but she had a brainwave – she would ask me to stand in for her as I am her identical triplet sister. My other triplet, Sheila, is non-identical. I was tested, found to share the same tissue type as Liz and was a good match for the patient. I went to London and donated by bone marrow collection.
I had an extremely positive experience of donation and this started my journey with Anthony Nolan.
Over the next few years, with the help of family and friends, I did lots of fundraising and helped at recruitment events and raised awareness.
How did you get started with volunteering for R&Be?
I became involved with the Register & Be A Lifesaver programme after I read an article in the Daily Mail, which had extracts of a blog written by Adrian Sudbury. Adrian had leukaemia and he wrote honestly and movingly about his life coping with his illness. Adrian was so inspirational. I followed his progress and was very sad to hear that he passed away in 2008.
But Adrian had an idea, which was to become his legacy – he wanted all 16 to year-olds to be educated about bone marrow, blood and organ donation by an army of volunteers who would go into schools and colleges and deliver presentations. Adrian wanted students to make their own informed decision about registering as donors.
Led by Adrian’s parents, Keith and Kay Sudbury, working with Anthony Nolan, the Register & Be A Lifesaver programme was formed. After an appeal for volunteers, I went to the very first R&Be training day in Birmingham and became a volunteer.
What does being an R&Be volunteer involve?
My role as an R&Be volunteer involves going into sixth forms and colleges and delivering a 30-minute presentation educating students about how they can save lives by joining the stem cell, blood and organ donor registers. I can speak in large assembly situations, or in smaller classroom set-ups. We sometimes follow our presentations a week later with a recruitment event and I also help out at these.
What do you get out of volunteering with Anthony Nolan? Would you recommend it to other people?
I get so much out of being a volunteer , I have gained so much confidence and learnt a lot of new skills. In my normal job, I am usually to be found in my wellies helping my husband run our mixed dairy farm, so public speaking was massively out of my comfort zone. I knew that it was going to be a huge personal challenge to deliver these presentations, but I am so determined to get the R&Be message across that I have really worked at overcoming my nerves.
Yes, I still do get scared and I don’t think I will ever quite get rid of that wobble in my voice. But, 100 presentations later, I think I am doing ok. Through being involved with Anthony Nolan and R&Be, I have met some amazing people and have made some friends for life. We are a great team.
I would highly recommend getting involved with R&Be – these presentations actually save lives.
22 students who signed up to join the bone marrow register after hearing an R&Be presentation have now matched with patients and have actually gone on to donate their stem cells, which is absolutely wonderful. Think how many more lives are going to be saved over the next few years.
What’s your favourite R&Be memory from the 100 talks you’ve given?
I am extremely proud to be involved and have lots of fantastic memories of the last 13 years with Anthony Nolan and R&Be.
In 2013, I was delighted to receive an award for Volunteer of the Year from Anthony Nolan and I was so proud to collect the award at the House of Commons. I have had lots of memorable presentations, not for any outstanding reason other than for the reaction of the students.
There was a presentation when a student came up at the end, simply gave me a hug and said thank you for going into her school and told me her aunty had passed away waiting for a bone marrow match. She said perhaps now, because of Adrian’s legacy, more matches will be found and other families won’t have to go through what hers did. These are the presentations you don’t forget.
Young people often get bad press but the ones I have spoken to have been fantastic. It’s just such a great feeling when you speak to a group of students and realise that they “totally get it” – they really are the next generation of lifesavers.
How you can help
Has Heather inspired you to volunteer with Anthony Nolan? You can read more about our full range of volunteering opportunities here, from packing spitkits to recruiting potential donors.