Bryan and Monica’s daughter Helen received a life-saving stem cell transplant when she was battling Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Image: Monica and Bryan Davies)
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A retired couple have travelled 15,000 miles delivering stem cells to cancer patients after meeting the donor who saved their daughter's life.
Heroes Monica and Bryan Davies had only just trained as couriers for the charity Anthony Nolan when the coronavirus outbreak hit early last year.
But they were determined to continue volunteering, inspired by their daughter Helen’s brave battle with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and meeting the selfless stem cell donor who came to her rescue.
Monica, 67, said: “These people can’t wait for a transplant. Their illness won’t suddenly go away because there is a pandemic. So we didn’t want to stop either.
Monica and Bryan Davies have spent the pandemic delivering life saving stem cells to cancer patients
(Image: Monica and Bryan Davies)
“Helen was very concerned for us, but we knew without her transplant, she wouldn’t be here today.
“I couldn’t bear the thought that other families standing by a hospital bed, being told the transplant couldn’t go ahead because the stem cells couldn’t get through."
Helen was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2010 after suffering severe night sweats, itching that made her scratch her legs until they bled, and a persistent cough.
At the same time, her energy levels plummeted. She went from running the Paris Marathon in April to struggling to walk short distances by the time doctors discovered the blood cancer in August.
The diagnosis was all the more terrifying as a close family friend had lost their teenage son to the disease a decade earlier, but doctors initially reassured Helen she was likely to make a full recovery.
Bryan, 65, said: “The doctors said Helen’s age, fitness, and ethnicity all worked in her favour. They said she would have six months of chemo and she would be fine. That made us feel a little better.”
But within months of finishing her treatment, Helen’s cough returned and scans revealed a shadow on her chest. Further investigations confirmed the cancer was back.
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This time doctors gave Helen a heavier dose of chemotherapy, which made her hair fall out, and a transplant of her own stem cells to “reboot” her system.
Again, it offered only a temporary respite and 18 months later Helen’s cough – and the cancer – returned. By now doctors had exhausted all treatments except a stem cell transplant from a donor.
Monica said: “I asked if Helen was going to be alright. The consultant went to put her hand on my knee to comfort me, then drew back and said they would do their best.
“We spent three months not knowing whether she would be well enough for a transplant, because it would be so hard on her body.”
When Helen was first diagnosed her parents lived in the Netherlands, though Bryan spent two days a week in England running a company in Hertfordshire.
He immediately began renting an apartment near the hospital and barely left for the next four years as her treatment progressed.
But Monica had to spend her weeks in the Netherlands, where she was assistant principal of five British schools, and travelled back to her family at weekends.
Ben (left) came to Helen's wedding after donating stem cells to her which saved her life
(Image: Jeremy Abrahams)
Monica said: “Getting on that plane every week got increasingly difficult. One night Helen was so upset I had to call my boss and tell them I wouldn’t be back that week.”
Thankfully a matching donor was found on the Anthony Nolan stem cell register and Helen had her transplant in March 2014. Doctors blasted her body with chemotherapy to knock out her own immune system and stop it rejecting the new stem cells, before beginning the transplant.
Bryan said: “They hit her as hard as possible with chemotherapy, pushing her body to the point where she could only just survive. She even suffered internal bleeding. It was awful to watch.
“The most emotional moment was seeing her blood count rising for the first time. It increased very slightly, but it meant the transplant was working. It was a mix of euphoria and relief.”
This time Helen made a good recovery, but she had no idea who saved her life. Strict anonymity rules prevent patients meeting their donor for two years after the transplant.
As soon as she was allowed, Helen made contact with her donor Ben Potts, from Kent. They quickly became friends and she invited him to her wedding in September 2016.
During her illness, Helen had been unable to attend her brother Matthew’s wedding in Spain, so she opted for a big celebration with friends and family, hiring a castle near Edinburgh for the occasion.
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Helen’s singer husband Raphael Eragona taught her to play guitar so they could perform a moving duet instead of a first dance.
Monica said: “At one point, she had told a friend she would get married in hospital if she wasn’t going to make it, so it was wonderful to have that big celebration.
“Helen’s hair had grown back, even though it was still short and baby-like, and everyone was thrilled to see her looking so well.
“After the ceremony, she took us straight to meet Ben. I was so emotional I couldn’t speak, I just shook his hand. When we could get the words out, all we could say was, thank you.
“He looked so much like Helen, they could have been siblings. The guests said it brought tears to their eyes seeing him there.”
Inspired by their experience, Monica and Bryan were keen to support Anthony Nolan and volunteered to become stem cell couriers when they retired and returned to England.
Bryan, Monica, Helen and Helen's brother Matthew on holiday in Vietnam
(Image: Monica and Bryan Davies)
The charity has a team of 50 volunteers who transport stem cells to hospitals across the UK and overseas but many are retirees.
As a result many were forced to stop when the pandemic began, either because they were over 70 years-old or because they had health issues of their own.
And while Helen was classed as highly vulnerable and told to begin shielding with Raphael when the pandemic began, her parents criss-crossed the country on their lifesaving missions.
They travelled from their home in the Hope Valley in Derbyshire to collect stem cells from Anthony Nolan’s hub at Heathrow before taking them to hospitals around the UK.
Bryan explained the number of volunteers to transfer stem cells plummeted when the coronavirus lockdown first hit, but he and Monica were determined to carry on their work.
He said: "The pandemic made courier trips feel a bit more scary and we knew we could just lock our doors and stay at home, but we were also aware people were relying on a transplant.
“Every trip is very emotional. I remember the relief I felt when they told us the stem cells had arrived safely and I go back to that day when I sat with Helen, counting her blood counts every hour and waiting for that turning point.
“We will always be grateful to Ben for saving Helen’s life and are proud to help Anthony Nolan ensure other patients get the transplant they need during the pandemic.”
The couple made three deliveries a week at the peak of the pandemic, armed only with face shields, hand sanitiser gel, and homemade sandwiches so they could avoid stopping en route. They've now clocked up an astounding 15,000 miles – the equivalent of halfway around the world.
Henny Braund, Anthony Nolan's chief executive said: “Over the last year our volunteer couriers have showed just how committed they are to giving people with blood cancer a second chance of life.
“We are very lucky to have this dedicated group of passionate supporters working around the clock to keep stem cell donations moving during this difficult period and save lives.”
Anthony Nolan needs to raise extra funds during the pandemic to continue its vital work. To donate or to join the stem cell donor register visit www.anthonynolan.org/coronavirusemergencyappeal.