Leukaemia survivor Gary Hodges, 65, from Lymington, Hampshire, met the woman who helped save his life for the first time and was able to thank her in person.
The father-of-two and grandfather was a special guest at blood cancer charity DKMS’ Let’s Make A Spark supporter event at the Malmaison Hotel, Birmingham, where local supporters were recognised and celebrated for their important role in helping the fight against blood cancer and blood disorders.
Speaking about his first meeting on 4 April with grandmother Karen Scoltock, 58, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, who donated her blood stem cells to help give Gary a second chance at life, he said:
“I just wanted to hold her and hug her and say thank you, but there should be a bigger word than thank you. Thanks to Karen’s selfless donation I can walk, speak, think, eat and drink. It’s her immune system that protects me if I get ill. It’s her platelets that help me if I get cut. It’s incredible – Karen is literally with me every step I take.”
In December 2014 Gary and wife, Marion, travelled to Auckland, New Zealand to spend time with their son James and new grandson Ethan. Gary started feeling more tired than usual from simple tasks like pushing Ethan’s pushchair. “It was strange as I had always been fit and active”, Gary said.
When visiting their other son Philip, in San Francisco, Gary said: “I started to notice that I was feeling more and more tired. We didn’t have any health insurance, so I was putting off going to the doctors and then it got to the point where I could hardly walk. I had to go and see a doctor and he said to go to the hospital immediately. Philip had to show his credit card before I could get treated.
“At the hospital, they immediately started pumping blood into me. I had four units of blood, three units of platelets because my levels were so low. They gave me a letter to say that I could fly and gave me a face mask to wear on the plane. It cost us around $20,000 for my one night in the hospital.
“In my heart, I knew I had leukaemia and the worst moment was flying home knowing I had this life-threatening condition and thinking I might never see San Francisco again.”
On his return, Gary went straight to Salisbury District Hospital and after a bone marrow sample was taken at the Salisbury he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
After several rounds of chemotherapy, it was decided in June 2015 that Gary’s best chance of survival would be to receive a blood stem cell transplant and he was transferred to Southampton General Hospital.
Six out of 10 blood cancer patients in the UK find an unrelated matching blood stem cell donor – meaning 4 out of 10 won’t. Gary’s three siblings were tested, but they were not identified as a suitable match and his twin sons were told it was highly unlikely they’d be a match, so he was relying on a complete stranger to help save his life.
Following a few agonising months wait Gary said:
“The Southampton Hospital identified a 10/10 match but that fell through and I don’t know why, so I was told they would go ahead with a 7/10 match. I was a little worried as it didn’t sound quite as good. I was just about to go into hospital and they said that they had a better match. It was Karen and she was my10/10 match.”
After seeing an appeal to help a little boy, called Finn McEwan, find his lifesaver Karen registered with DKMS as a potential blood stem cell donor, at the age of 54. She said: “I just knew straight away that it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to try and help somebody because I had recently lost two family members and it was so frustrating that I couldn’t help them.”
A few months later, Karen was notified to say that she had been identified as a potential match for someone and had to go through additional tests to ensure she was the best possible match.
Karen said: “I wasn’t on the registry long before DKMS contacted me. I was really shocked but really excited at the same time. I said to my husband that I felt like I won the lottery – I was really amazed.”
In October 2015 Karen donated her blood stem cells by peripheral blood stem cell collection, which is used in around 90% of all donations. This method is very similar to giving blood. It involves blood being taken from one of the donor’s arms and a machine separates the blood stem cells from it. The donor’s blood is then returned to them through their other arm. This is an outpatient procedure that is usually completed in 4-6 hours. The remaining 10% of donations are made through a bone marrow collection.
Following Karen’s lifesaving donation to Gary, the pair could write anonymously for a two year period before their identities could be revealed. They spoke over the phone for the first time on Christmas Day 2018.
Gary said: “Looking back on the whole experience, going through the leukaemia diagnosis, treatment plan and having somebody like Karen donating her blood stem cells to me, without even knowing who I was is incredible.
“Not only has it been life-saving but life-changing, Having gone through that experience of almost losing it, and losing everyone you love, it’s made me really appreciate life. I look at it completely differently and my life is better than it’s ever been.
“Elton John’s song ‘I’m still standing’ played an instrumental role throughout my blood cancer journey and thanks to DKMS and all their wonderful supporters, like Karen, I am still standing. Karen said she was inspired by a little boy she had seen on TV who needed a blood stem cell transplant. I’m an older man at the other end of the spectrum. It goes to show that when you register to become a lifesaver-in-waiting you’ve no idea who’s waiting. Hopefully, a lot of other people will be inspired to donate their blood stem cells.”
Karen said: “If you are prepared to receive a blood stem cell donation if you need one yourself then you should be prepared to donate. If you get the opportunity to donate – it’s just an amazing feeling to be able to help save someone’s life and for me to be able to meet Gary in person has been mind-blowing.”
If you are aged between 17 – 55 and in general good health take the first step to register as a blood stem cell donor by registering for your home swab kit at www.dkms.org.uk. It costs us £40 to register just one potential blood stem cell donor. While many of our supporters contribute towards the cost of their registration, not all are able to do so. Any funds you can donate, no matter the size, can make a huge difference and help to give blood cancer patients a second chance at life!