Sheffield man says thank you to German ‘genetic twin’ who saved his life

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A man whose life was saved by a stem cell donor has met her to say thank you for the gift of life.

Mark Ritson, aged 49, from Fulwood, Sheffield, had a potentially fatal blood disease and needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.

The Anthony Nolan charity, which runs a register of potential donors, found Mark’s ‘genetic twin’ in Germany.

Jacqueline Harfmann, 19, had signed up to the register just a few weeks before she was found to be a match.

She has donated her bone marrow twice in a bid to save Mark’s life after the first transplant failed.

Bone marrow - the material inside bones – is where stem cells develop into mature blood cells before they are released into the bloodstream.

Mark needed more stem cells to boost his blood count, which was dangerously low.

Mark and his lifesaver Jacqueline recently met up in Sheffield, where they visited the Royal Hallamshire Hospital to meet the medics who carried out the transplants.

Jacqueline spent three days living with Mark, his wife Lisa and children Iona, aged two and Magnus, five months.

Mark, a company director, was diagnosed with severe aplastic anaemia in 2008, meaning his bone marrow was severely damaged and unable to produce enough new blood cells.

Anonymity rules mean that transplant donors and recipients can’t reveal their identities to each other for two years, but can exchange letters through the Anthony Nolan charity, which Mark and Jacqueline did until they could meet face-to-face.

“I did wonder who my donor was, and as soon as a year had passed I wrote a letter to her through Anthony Nolan. I was interested to know more about her because I now had her immune system – even my blood group changed to hers. I wanted to thank her as I knew I wouldn’t have lived without those transplants,” said Mark.

“Jacqueline flew over from Germany and stayed with us for three days. We visited the hospital that treated me and met the transplant team, which was a special moment for all of us. And of course she got to meet my wife, our daughter and our five-month-old son and see what she had really given me – a chance to see my family grow up.

“When you need a transplant you can’t choose the person who might save you, but if I could I would have chosen Jacquelin.”

Mark’s first transplant went ahead in 2013, with Jacqueline donating her bone marrow in Germany, which was flown to the UK.

Following the transplant Mark spent two months in isolation and was able to leave hospital a week before the birth of his eldest daughter, Iona.

But within weeks tests revealed that the transplant had failed to boost Mark’s blood count and he was hospitalised again.

“The doctors had to re-approach Jacqueline for another donation and I was nervous that she would be feeling ill after the transplant and wouldn’t want to do it again. What I didn’t know was that she had been ringing the transplant centre in Germany asking how it went, and when she heard the transplant had failed she offered to donate again, before they even asked,” said Mark.

The second transplant, which left Mark needing to spend 200 days in hospital in the first year, has proved a success.

“It was hard not being able to spend time with my daughter and having such a long time off work. But after all of the complications and infections and receiving over 100 units of blood during my illness, I gradually got stronger and stronger, and around 18 months after my second transplant I was finally starting to get back to normal,” he said.

He is now planning to run the Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday to raise money for the Anthony Nolan Trust.

So far he has raised £4,000.

“I want to show myself and other transplant recipients that you can still lead an active lifestyle, despite what your body has been through,” said Mark.

“I hate saying it but I wouldn’t have survived without a transplant, so I want to encourage as many people as possible to sign up to the Anthony Nolan stem cell register. It’s a fantastic thing to do and means you have the chance to actually save someone’s life. How often do you get a chance to do that?

“Without the amazing, selfless young person who put herself forward to provide this lifeline for me, I would have lost the chance to see my children grow up. Only a successful transplant could have given me back my life.”

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