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Bell-ringer inspires fund-raising drive for cancer charity

27 January 2017


Willing hands: Julie McDonnell (centre front, with heart pendant) and bell-ringers at St Peter and St Paul, Peasmarsh

Willing hands: Julie McDonnell (centre front, with heart pendant) and bell-ringers at St Peter and St Paul, Peasmarsh

IN SIX months, since last summer, a campaign headed by a bell-ringer in Sussex has raised £7 million to help sufferers from blood cancer. Dr Julie McDonnell, who has chronic myeloid leukemia, enlisted the help of ringers in England, and worldwide, last year (News, 27 May), and of donors among her friends and neighbours in south-east Sussex, to fund, specifically, stem-cell transplants for those who have one of the 137 different kinds of blood cancer.

At first, Dr McDonnell’s plan was simply to raise public awareness of the condition, and of charities such as the Anthony Nolan Register and Bloodwise, which help those with blood cancer to find compatible stem-cell donors. She herself, diagnosed as terminally ill in December 2015, had benefited from the Anthony Nolan Register; and, although she was then a ringing novice, and despite being ill at the time, had rung a sponsored peal at Bexhill. A peal, which takes more than three hours of non-stop ringing, is a challenge even for someone in good health.

A special bell-ringing “method”, or pattern, Julie McDonnell Doubles, which can be rung on five or six bells, was composed by the ringers of Birchington, Kent. Last summer, Dr McDonnell found her first main sponsor, who offered £35,000 if 100 quarter-peals of Julie McDonnell Doubles could be rung by Christmas Day 2016.

Ringers had completed nearly 400, even before the deadline, and the campaign had taken off. The initiative, which was to become the charity Strike Back Against Blood Cancer (SBABC) was set up; and the Julie McDonnell method was extended, with variants, for ringing on any number of bells, up to 12 (mostly in cathedrals).

With fellow ringers in and around Brede, Sussex, where she lives, Dr McDonnell had kick-started the campaign with a walk-and-ring event from Wye, in Kent, to Canterbury, on 25 June last year. Shortly before the walk took place, she needed a second stem-cell transplant. A fortnight later, NHS England advised the NHS as a whole to suspend funding for second stem-cell transplants.

“Two weeks earlier, that would have been a death sentence for me,” Dr McDonnell wrote in the weekly paper The Ringing World. In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the devolved parliaments voted to keep the funding in place.

Concerned at the “unfairness” of the decision for blood-cancer sufferers in England, Dr McDonnell set to work. “Being rather poorly at this time, I strapped myself to my phone and lap-top, and started telephoning.” She was soon making up to 100 phone calls a day.

A ringer at Hastings, Alan Pink, who has supported Dr McDonnell and her initiative from the start, says that she should be too ill to do all this, but that she has “fire inside her”. The response she elicited from her personal appeals gives an idea of her extraordinary reach and persuasiveness.

The Pope agreed to have the Great Bell at St Peter’s, in the Vatican, rung in support; and the Dalai Lama to arrange ringing on the meditation bells at Dharamsala, India. A bell was rung on a temple in Thailand; and on the International Space Station about 250 miles above earth. Ringers in Sydney, Cape Town, Miami, and Hawaii, as well in the UK, from Inverness to Chichester, joined in.

Where there were no bells, changes were rung on hand-bells: in Barbados, by the Pyramids, and on the Great Wall of China.

Dr McDonnell understands, Mr Pink says, that raising big money means approaching wealthy people: he considers her shame-levels, when asking for what she needs, to be “almost non-existent”. She is good at both finding such people, and infecting them with her enthusiasm. “Cancer has touched so many,” she says, “either people personally, or their loved ones.” Their donors, who include bankers and a rock star, have been “astonishingly generous”.

Bell-ringers have also spent countless hours ringing Julie McDonnell methods, and the money has kept coming in, in chunks of £40,000, £50,000, or more, at a time. One donor has recently promised them a million euros. A German banker who overheard his British counterpart talking about the charity offered a donation of his own. A core group of ringers has now accepted the challenge of ringing 2000 quarter peals in 2017.

The next step, Dr McDonnell says, is registering SBABC formally as a charity in March, so that people with blood cancer can apply directly to its trustees — of whom she will be one — for money to fund a second stem-cell transplant. 

Dr McDonnell confirms that her cancer has now spread. But she has set a date in June to ring another sponsored peal: to mark her 50th birthday.



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