The champagne flowed, there were emotional hugs all round and even a few quiet tears. But this was no ordinary celebration for Deborah Costello and Tatton Spiller — in fact, the pair were meeting for the first time exactly ten years after Tatton’s stem cell donation saved Deborah’s life.
‘When I actually set eyes on him for the first time, I could hardly take in the magnitude of the whole thing — he was a stranger, yet the fact I am alive today is entirely thanks to him,’ says Deborah, 65, of their meeting last November. ‘It was surreal yet wonderful at the same time.
‘I already had love in my heart for Tatton because he saved my life, but when I met him I also found that I really liked him,’ says Deborah, who lives in Chichester, West Sussex, with her husband Alan and works part-time in a furniture showroom.
Tatton, 42, an author, who lives in Whitstable, Kent, with his partner Katie, 37, a teacher, and stepson Elliot, 15, admits that he was a bit apprehensive before that first meeting.
‘After all, we were total strangers, thrown together by pure chance,’ he says. ‘I had no idea who was going to walk in the door, although I knew Debs was nice from the occasional emails that we had exchanged over the years.
This was no ordinary celebration for Deborah Costello and Tatton Spiller — in fact, the pair were meeting for the first time exactly ten years after Tatton’s stem cell donation saved Deborah’s life
Tatton was 32 when he was identified as a match for Deborah via the British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR), part of NHS Blood and Transplant. He had originally signed up in his early 20s
‘But the minute Debs and Alan arrived, the conversation flowed so easily. We had some champagne, had a big hug and it was all very intense at first.
‘But then we found out we had quite a bit in common. For instance, one of Debs’ daughters, Libby, follows my political information platform [Simple Politics] and we all just never stopped talking.
‘We had such a good time that we all went to the pub for a drink together after our meal.’
Tatton was 32 when he was identified as a match for Deborah via the British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR), part of NHS Blood and Transplant. He had originally signed up in his early 20s.
‘I’d been donating blood regularly with my mother and was asked if I would register as a [stem cell] donor,’ he recalls. ‘I agreed, then promptly forgot about it.’
Around ten years later, Tatton got a call out of the blue to say he was a match for a patient who needed a stem cell donation.
Stem cells — produced by bone marrow — are used to treat blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma (cancer affecting the lymphatic system) and myeloma (cancer affecting the white blood cells).
Blood cancers are the fifth most common cancer in the UK and the third biggest cause of cancer-related deaths, with 16,000 deaths a year.
Stem cell transplants are also used to treat other blood disorders, such as sickle cell anaemia.
Stem cells are effectively ‘the parents’ of other types of blood cell, explains Dr Rachel Pawson, a consultant haematologist at nhs Blood and Transplant (NHSBT).
‘They produce red blood cells, which are needed to carry oxygen around the body; white blood cells, which fight infection; and platelets, which we need for the blood to clot.’
A transplant involves replacing a patient’s unhealthy blood cells with healthy stem cells from the blood or bone marrow of a donor.
It is particularly crucial for patients with diseases such as blood cancers, as chemotherapy and radiotherapy also damage white blood cells, raising their risk of infection and illness.
‘An infusion of donated healthy stem cells can help a patient to receive higher beneficial doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy,’ explains Dr Pawson.
And it’s young men such as Tatton whose stem cells are the most in demand, leading doctors and specialists to urge more to register as a donor.
For although 12 per cent of those who’ve signed up to donate are males aged 16 to 30, this group actually represents 75 per cent of those who finally go on to donate as accepted matches.
This is because their stem cells are preferable as they have better clinical outcomes.
As Dr Pawson explains: ‘Research shows that patients who have received stem cells from younger men not only live for longer afterwards but also have a lower risk of side-effects such as graft vs host disease [when the donated cells attack the patient’s own cells, which is potentially life-threatening],’ she says.
Blood cancers are the fifth most common cancer in the UK and the third biggest cause of cancer-related deaths, with 16,000 deaths a year (stock image)
‘The youth of a donor’s immune system has an impact on the quality of their stem cells. Also, the larger size of men in general means they usually produce a higher yield of stem cells suitable for clinical use.
‘As a result, young male donors under the age of 30 are 13 times more likely to be selected for donation than other people.’
While a quarter of patients in need of a stem cell transplant find a suitable match from a sibling, Dr Pawson says that ‘the remainder rely upon strangers’.
The patient and donor need to have the same tissue type to avoid rejection — and ‘there are many millions of potential tissue types, which is why we always need more donors’, explains Dr Pawson.
This includes more donors from mixed ethnic backgrounds.
Currently, Caucasian people have around a 75 to 80 per cent chance of finding a match; people from black ethnic groups have a 30 to 40 per cent chance; but those of mixed race ‘only a few per cent’, says Dr James Griffin, a consultant haematologist and medical director of cell, apheresis and gene therapies at NHSBT.While the transplant itself is given like a blood transfusion, the donor donates via a machine a bit like a kidney dialysis machine; or from the bone marrow, which involves a small operation under general anaesthetic.
‘Ninety per cent of donations are from the bloodstream,’ says Dr Griffin. (The operation version is considered better for certain diseases and for children.)
While clinicians do not see it as a last resort, for some patients it can represent their only realistic chance of a long-term cure.
Deborah had discovered a ‘pea-sized lump’ on the side of her neck in 2009, when she was 52.
Her GP dismissed it as a ‘fatty lump’ but she opted to get it removed. However, tests on the tissue then revealed she had chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, a cancer affecting the blood and bone marrow. This was, Deborah says, ‘a bolt from the blue’.
She started chemotherapy in 2010 and scans in 2011 showed her cancer had gone.
But by the end of that year, her leukaemia returned.
More chemotherapy followed, but it became clear that another option was needed and the search for a stem cell donor began.
‘When I was told my leukaemia had returned, I just burst into tears,’ recalls Deborah. ‘I thought I was going to die. My GP prescribed Valium to help me cope.’
Then, in autumn 2012, she got a call to say that a suitable match had been identified.
She was admitted to hospital and the transplant was performed on November 16. Deborah spent three weeks there in isolation to protect her new immune system.
She’d been told that the donor was a man, aged 32 (the same age as her elder daughter, Faye) and British — but nothing more. Keen to thank him, she sent a card, via the health services, a year later (the first opportunity the protocol allows). Deborah still has the first contact from Tatton — a Christmas card, sent on the second-year anniversary and enquiring after her wellbeing — sitting on a side table.
‘Even now, I get emotional every time I look at it,’ she says, her voice cracking.
Meanwhile Tatton, who is divorced with three children — a daughter Caitlin, 12, Alfred, ten, and Felix, seven — says he cannot believe how little he had to do to save a life.
‘I only needed the one week off work,’ he says. That allowed him to have five daily injections of growth factor to increase the quantity of stem cells in his blood. ‘A nurse came to my house and I felt fluey for a week,’ he recalls.
Tatton then spent a day in a private London hospital while his stem cells were harvested, which took about four hours.
‘It was tiring rather than painful,’ he says, ‘and I was back to work the next day.’
Six months later, Tatton was told that the patient was doing well. Then, a year after the transplant, he had a card from Deborah saying simply: ‘Thank you for the gift of life.’
He recalls: ‘I was overwhelmed by it.’ As the years went by, the two maintained occasional email contact.
At first Tatton was reluctant to meet up, feeling unworthy of Deborah’s gratitude because of the ‘smallness’ of what he had to do, as he puts it.
Then, as the tenth anniversary approached, he felt the moment was right and suggested they meet for dinner, together with their partners.
Tatton says: ‘Because of this small thing I did, another person is alive today and that is mind-blowing. Her family have already had ten more years with her, ten more birthdays, ten more Christmases.
‘I’d urge other people, particularly young men, to get on the register. There is no downside whatsoever,’ he says.
‘If someone was in the middle of the road and a car was coming, you’d try to save them, wouldn’t you? Well, a car is coming for people like Debs — and you can save them.
‘This is the best thing I will ever do in my life.’
- To become a stem cell donor visit bbmr.co.uk/joining-the-register/
GOING WITH THE GRAIN
Three portions of wholegrains a day may help protect against heart disease, new research shows. Here, Ruth Kander, a dietitian at the Fleet Street Clinic in London, shows you tasty ways to hit your recommended ‘three a day’.
Lovegrass Wholegrain Crispy Teff Flakes, 350g, £4.50, ocado.com
Teff is an ancient fine grain and a good source of iron — and magnesium, needed for energy. It’s been turned into flakes in this breakfast cereal — three tablespoons count as one of your wholegrain portions and provide around a third of your daily fibre.
Gallo Rustico Rosso Riso, 500g, £2.90, waitrose.com
THIS red wholegrain rice has a nutty flavour and is a healthy swap for white rice, with almost four times as much fibre. Red rice is also a source of antioxidants such as anthocyanin, which has blood pressure-lowering properties. Two tablespoons of cooked rice count as one portion.
Schneider Brot Rye Bread, 500g, £1.15, tesco.com
Wheat-FREE, this German bread is made with wholegrain rye, which is both filling and packed with fibre — studies suggest that rye bread can leave you feeling fuller for longer than regular wheat bread. One slice will count as a portion of wholegrain.