WHEN Agnes Vella was undergoing a blood-stem-cell transplant in March 2018, she had no way of knowing that the Franciscan chaplain supporting her was also her donor.
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in August 2017, she underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, and was told that she could go home because she was in remission. She was also told, however, that, if a blood stem-cell donor was not found, it was likely that the leukaemia would return within a year.
No one in her family was a match — like two in three patients in need of a stem-cell transplant — but a search on the international database found one just six weeks later. She travelled to the UK to have the transplant at the Royal Marsden Hospital, where she struck up a friendship with Fr Mario Sant, a Maltese Franciscan friar who works in hospitals across London to support Maltese patients. On the day of their meeting, he had undergone blood tests to become a stem-cell donor, having been moved by the story of a young boy at Great Ormond Street who was unable to find a match.
During Mrs Vella’s transplant, he provided pastoral support, including giving her communion. “I had no idea I was the donor,” he said this week. “I was told on harvesting day that my recipient was female, and that was all.”
“I didn’t have any idea who the donor was,” Mrs Vella said, from her home in Malta. “It didn’t even cross my mind that it could have been [Fr Mario].”
While the donation process is anonymised, recipients can request information about their donor after two years have passed. “I was curious to know who he was, and also I wanted to thank the person,” Mrs Vella said. “It saved my life, practically.” When she learned, via DKMS, the world’s largest stem-cell donor register, of the donor’s identity, she was speechless: “You couldn’t even think that it would be possible!”
The pandemic meant that their next face-to-face meeting took place in Malta only last month. “It was amazing,” Fr Mario said. “Even her family was there — her daughter and son and husband. It was very nice to see them again after these years, and seeing that she is doing fine.”
They hope that their story will encourage others to consider being donors.
Fr Mario began donating blood at a young age, following his parents’ example. “I think I always believed in helping others, you know, since I was very young,” he said. “Then, in regards with my vocation, I want to give my life for God’s service and for God’s people. . . It was always my wish to help others, even with [a] simple gesture. . .
“What I did, it was really just a simple gesture to cover a bit more of my debt. Even if I give my whole life, I would never pay my debt to God.”
Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with leukaemia, and the register of stem-cell donors — who are needed to save thousands of patients’ lives — does not currently meet the demand. The pandemic has had a huge effect on registrations, with the number of people signing up to save a life with DKMS plummeting since 2019.
Taking the first steps to register as a potential blood-stem-cell donor can be done within a few minutes at home. If you are aged between 17 and 55 and in general good health, you can sign up for a home swab kit at www.dkms.org.uk/register-now. Your swabs can then be returned with the enclosed pre-paid envelope to DKMS to ensure that your details are added to the UK’s aligned-stem-cell registry.