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She’s 2 today.

JANE SAYS she’d like a nanna-style tea for her birthday. Proper old school. Sandwiches with the crusts off, mini scotch eggs and cocktail sausages, that type of thing. Maybe some items in a stick format to thrust at some dips. Oh! And definitely jelly and ice cream, and a birthday cake.

I enquire about quiche, and Jane says why not. There’s always something at a nanna-style tea you don’t really like but feel obliged to offer anyway, and for Jane this is quiche. I tell her I love quiche and that when I was a kid the thing I disliked at nanna-style teas was pilchards and I never told my actual nan, God rest her soul. Jane agrees there will be no pilchards today. Maybe no pilchards ever.

Jane’s my wife. She’s 45 years old, but what’s on the outside shouldn’t fool you because on the inside she’s two. Literally.

Her biology is not the biology she was born with, you see.

It’s actually the biology that an extraordinary young man from Germany (who we’ve yet to meet) was born with, because he donated his stem cells to Anthony Nolan to save the life of a stranger, and that stranger was Jane.

My wife. My best friend. A force of nature. A magnificent mother to our children. An inspirational volunteer and leader for our local St John’s Ambulance. The bravest, toughest, most glorious woman I have ever known. The absolute, undisputed, love and blessing of my life.

On 26 October 2018, Jane was diagnosed with something terrifying called acute adult lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), a rare form of blood cancer. I don’t want to go too deeply into private things here, but after weeks in hospital, months of chemotherapy and an avalanche of medication, Jane and I came to learn two very important facts from the incredible team at Nottingham City Hospital’s haematology unit – 1) Jane had gone into remission; the leukaemia had gone and 2) a stem cell donor, without whom there was no hope of a long-term cure, had been found. Not just found. He was a near perfect match.

I cried, a lot, later on. I flung my arms up at the sky and thanked God, science and the NHS for answered prayer.

On 13 March 2019, Jane received her stem cell transplant at the Fletcher Ward, Nottingham City Hospital. Here’s a breathtaking short film from Anthony Nolan which shows just what it means to know you’ve found a match.

I remember when those precious cells got to the ward. They’d been flown in all the way from Frankfurt that morning, defying storms, airport security and a courier ride from Heathrow in heavy traffic, to reach her. I remember watching as the cells steadily went through the tube and into my Janey, remember thinking just how many wonderful souls had been part of making this happen, how grateful I would always be to those wonderful souls, how utterly amazing human beings can be when they can show kindness to strangers just because. We live in a world which can often feel so hostile, so divided, so fallen. But it feels to me that despite everything, we’re very much the same, under the skin.

We found out that it’s quite common for stem cell warriors to mark the anniversary of their transplants as a birthday. Two birthdays a year, it seems, isn’t something just reserved for the Queen. It makes sense, because on a biological level, you are effectively reborn on the day of transplant. Everything inside you is brand new as new life begins. It’s why you can be 45 on the outside, but on the inside be a babe, an infant. To me, this just feels miraculous.

It’s been far from straightforward since, mind you. A stem cell transplant can save a life, but this can never be 100% guaranteed, or 100% free of complexity. We weren’t able to celebrate Jane’s first rebirthday. Complications post-transplant had led to Jane needing to be treated for graft versus host disease (GVHD), which is caused when donor cells recognise host cells as foreign and begin to attack them. This can lead to further problems such as severe dermatitis, which is how GVHD presented in Jane. More months of treatment ensued to address this.

Which brings us to now. At the time of writing, the world seems a brighter, lighter place, COVID notwithstanding. Jane’s had her first vaccine jab and, as a carer, I’ve had mine. That’s such a relief because Jane continues to be immuno-compromised and has effectively been shielding for a year. I know there’s been some polarisation on this issue but, just so you know where I stand on this, please just wear the mask. Please.

I write this now for three reasons.

  • One – my darling girl is two today. It’s such a special occasion and she deserves to be honoured and lifted up;
  • Two – it’s like the fear has started to go away now and I can express myself about this experience more freely. It’s been so hard, but now I think we deserve to celebrate;
  • Three – you need to be a stem cell donor if you’re physically able to and you’re not a registered donor already.

Why wouldn’t you do it? You’re literally walking around with the means to save a life inside you. Congratulations! You’re a potential miracle – now go do something about it.

The two main charities are Anthony Nolan (for adults 16-30) and DKMS (for adults 17-55). Jane’s donor came from Anthony Nolan; I’m now a donor for DKMS. If (and when) the call ever comes, I’ll be ready. It’s my sincere hope and prayer that you’ll read this, contact one of those organisations today, and join me as a lifesaver in waiting.

But enough from me for now. Jane’s just woken up from her snooze and I’m going to make her a cup of tea. Then it’s over to the shops to pick up more stuff for our nanna-style tea later.

Who knows? Maybe there’ll be quiche.

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