A Leeds man who received a lifesaving stem cell transplant from a stranger 560 miles away, had an emotional Christmas meeting with the “brother” who cured his leukaemia.
“I used to play football so I thought it was just that and the effects of getting old. I was working away in Wales and I started getting really bad headaches. I’d take tablets but the headache just wouldn’t go away. After a week, with the sweats and the aches still going on, I thought, ‘This ain’t right.’” Ross recounts.
“Luckily Jen, my girlfriend at the time – now my wife – said I should go to the doctors, so I did. They checked me over but couldn’t really work out what was wrong, they thought maybe it was an overactive thyroid or something along those lines. They did a blood test and an ECG and I went back to Wales. Literally the next day they called me and said, ‘You need to come in today, we need to do more tests.’ I was like, ‘I’m in Wales so I won’t be able to get there in opening hours, how about Monday?’ and they said, ‘No, you’re going straight to the hospital, it’s open 24/7’. That’s when I realised this might be serious.”
Hospital tests revealed that Ross had ALL, a type of cancer that affects white blood cells. It’s a particularly virulent type of cancer which progresses quickly and aggressively, requiring immediate treatment. Ross’ doctors put him on a course of steroids and chemotherapy.
“That was it. I literally didn’t leave the hospital for seven weeks.”
After three stages of treatment, each lasting around six weeks, Ross was told that although the leukaemia cells had reduced, there was a good chance they’d return unless he had a stem cell transplant.
Ross’ sister was ruled out as a stem cell match, so the next step was to search the Anthony Nolan stem cell register for a matching unrelated donor.
After waiting a month, Ross was told that a donor had been found for him.
“That was great news,” said Ross.
“Although, when the donor had further checks, it was discovered that he wasn’t able to donate.”
After another month, a second donor, a man from Germany was found to be a good enough match for Ross and the transplant went ahead.
Recalling the day of the transplant Ross said: “It’s quite emotional when the stem cells come in. One of the things that sticks out in my memory is the little happy birthday card that Anthony Nolan sent. It was nice to get that. It said it was a new birthday. It’s a day we celebrate now. In July it was two years since my transplant and that was the day of our wedding. A couple of days later, I went to the doctors for my checkup and I’m two years clear [of the leukaemia] – they said, ‘So we can pretty much say that you’re cured.’ That was a big moment.”
Ross describes getting back to normal life, after a transplant, as “tough”.
In October 2017 tests revealed that Ross’ bone marrow was all now his donor’s.
“We had a big party to celebrate. I told everyone that I had the all-clear and then in front of all my friends and family, I proposed to Jen. It’s crazy how horrible it was to go through this, but at the same time, so much good has come out of it.
“You don’t realise until something like this happens, how great your friends are. They all pulled together and came up from London to see me pretty much every weekend and my parents came up from Bournemouth. They spent Christmas and New Year with me in the hospital, because it was November when I first went in. It gave me such a good feeling. At the party I did a speech and thanked everyone – I said that although I’d had leukaemia, the positives that came out of the experience massively outweighed the negatives. I appreciate things a lot more now. I have a different attitude towards life – I know it’s a cliche but ‘you only live once’.”
“Once I was better, that’s when it sunk in what I’d been through and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and worrying. But I’ve definitely come through that now. Life is good. I’ve been promoted at work after less than a year and a half of being back. I and Jen are going to the Maldives for our honeymoon. We’ve moved to a new house. I just live a normal life now and I wouldn’t have been able to without the stem cell transplant. If I hadn’t had the transplant, I would be living my life constantly worried that the leukaemia would come back. Because of that donor, the doctors have said to me, ‘You are cured.’ And that’s amazing.” Ross explained.
Although they had to spend the initial two years anonymous to each other, Ross thought of his donor often.
“I was allowed to contact him anonymously for the first two years, so I wrote him a message just to say thank you. It was funny because due to the treatment and the fact that I hadn’t written in a long time, my handwriting looked like a five-year-old had written it!
“After the two-year period, I contacted the charity Anthony Nolan and said I’d really like to be in touch with my donor. He was happy to be put in touch too and we got each other’s contact details. That was when I found out his name – Pascal. I was thinking, ‘When do I message him? Should I leave it a while? What do I say?’ but luckily I didn’t have to decide because the next day he sent me a WhatsApp message!
“We just started chatting and finding out about each other. It turned out when I was in Leeds, he’d been at Bradford university for a year doing his Masters. Two weeks later I was doing some work there and sent him a photo saying, ‘Look where I am!’ I sent him a photo of me with all my family, again just to say thank you.
“I’ve got him saved in my phone as ‘Brother Pascal’. It’s amazing.”
Two years ago 39-year-old Pascal Kreßner, who lives in Cologne and works as a project manager, donated his stem cells to a patient in need.
“I registered in the German stem cell database some years ago, triggered by the fact that my brother donated stem cells to a patient in the US,” says Pascal.
“When I was informed in 2017 that I might donate as well, I was honestly very excited. The donation itself was really easy for me, all was perfectly handled by the German association DKMS.
“Shortly after the donation, I was informed where my stem cells were going and the age of the patient. That was all, for over two years. Having spent one year in England in 2003, followed by multiple visits to the UK, I was very happy knowing that my stem cells were going to one of my favourite countries. I also felt sad at the young age of the patient, just a couple of years younger than me.
The pair decided to finally meet this December after Pascal suggested Ross and his family visit Cologne for the Christmas markets
“We flew out to Cologne on Friday. It was me, my wife (Jen), my mum and dad (Tony and Roxana) and my sister (Colette). We got there in the evening and had rented out an apartment.
“I and Pascal had been communicating frequently on Whatsapp leading up to the meet so I knew a little bit about him but was still nervous about meeting him. We decided to meet at the apartment so we could all have a chat. Pascal came with his girlfriend, Larissa. I met Pascal and gave him a hug straight away and said thanks! I then introduced my family to Pascal and Larissa and we all started chatting and getting to know each other. It was nice to see everyone talking and getting on.
“My sister gave Pascal a hoodie with Team Baker on it. This was our team that got through the leukaemia, so we wanted to let Pascal join the team. I then gave him a West Ham shirt as myself and my dad are West Ham fans, so we needed to recruit more supporters. We had his name put on the back and my football number 15 when I use to play. We also gave him Anthony Nolan cufflinks and Anthony Nolan badge from our wedding in July but shhh it’s a Christmas present!”
“After exchanging presents, we talked about my experience of the stem cell transplant and how Jen had pretty saved me by forcing me to the doctors.
“He explained what he did to donate his stem cells. It was really inspiring to see the effort he had put in to give me his stem cells. We talked about the donation which he said was very quick and was just two drips going into both arms which filtered out the stem cells from the blood, he said he did not even have chance to finish the James Bond movie he was watching – keeping it British!
We spent Saturday in the Christmas markets and visited Pascal’s apartment. We all got on really well. Then we discovered Pascal’s love for Great Britain, he had a GB doormat, a London bus picture on the wall and even a GB sink plug. He assured me this was not just because I was visiting! Pascal was wearing the Team Baker hoodie all day as well.
“Saying our goodbyes was very emotional. I was overwhelmed by the amount of effort Pascal and Larissa had put into the weekend, plus how much of a nice guy Pascal was and what he had done for me and my family,” said Ross.
“I found out over the weekend how much Pascal and myself had in common. We both worked in the pharmaceutical industry, we both enjoyed most sports, football and F1 being important, we both enjoyed lots of different food and wouldn’t turn anything down and he also did a Master’s Degree at Bradford Uni which is just down the road from where I live in Leeds.
“I really feel like he is my new brother now. Pascal and his girlfriend are really amazing people and we are so lucky that we have managed to meet and share this experience. Pascal saved my life, now he is a friend for life. I can’t express the amount of appreciation and thanks I have for the man and I am looking forward to sharing more adventures in Germany and the UK.”
Pascal says: “Ross is such a nice person, he truly deserved to recover, I can’t find the words to say how happy I was over those days; it is a true Christmas tale! We are already so much looking forward to meeting again in 2020, in England.
“I heard many thank yous along the weekend, however, I felt very lucky and thankful that I could donate, make a little difference in this world and help Ross at a difficult time. The contact with Ross and the visit has really made my year, I feel very thankful to have met him.
“It was a truly wonderful weekend, I was so pleased to meet Ross and his great family for nearly three days. We had a great time and it really felt like a family for me and my girlfriend after the first evening!”
When asked what he would say to anyone thinking of joining the register, Ross said: “If I would say anything to someone thinking of joining, it would be, to do it!
“Realising the impact of the simple act joining the register has on everyone after my experience makes me wish I was more giving to my younger self. If I can use my story to promote more people to join, then that’s the best thing I can do. If I had the chance to do what Pascal did, I would. I can only imagine how it must feel, to save someone’s life!”
Pascal adds: “My message to all is: please register yourself, the donation itself is so easy, fast and pain-free. Your effort is minimal compared to the effect you can create for a person on this planet, his family and friends included!”
Henny Braund, Chief Executive of Anthony Nolan, said:
“Ross and Pascal’s tale is that of an unlikely international friendship between two strangers, born out of the most extraordinary circumstances.
“He didn’t know it. at the time, but Pascal’s decision to join the register would have profound consequences, and give Ross, hundreds of miles away, a second chance of life.
“We’re incredibly grateful to donors like Pascal, who help Anthony Nolan to give a second chance of life to three people every day. We can’t find a suitable donor for around a third of people who need a lifesaving transplant which is why raising awareness of our work and, in particular, the need for more donors, is vitally important.
“If you are aged 16-30 and are in good general health, I would urge you to consider joining the Anthony Nolan register by simply completing a form and providing a cheek swab.”
Anthony Nolan recruits people aged 16-30 to the stem cell register as research has shown younger people are more likely to be chosen to donate.
The charity also carries out ground-breaking research to save more lives and provide information and support to patients after a stem cell transplant, through its clinical nurse specialists and psychologists, who help guide patients through their recovery.
It costs £40 to recruit each potential donor to the register, so Anthony Nolan relies on financial support.