TWO years after receiving a stem-cell transplant, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock still remembers the words that a nurse uttered as she prepared the transfer: “We have killed you, and now I am going to give you your life back.”
Before the transfer, chemotherapy had destroyed not only the leukaemia cells in his body, but his own stem cells. “A nurse came in one day and wheeled in a large pot that looked like one of those things you get hot soup from in a restaurant, wearing great big gloves like a welder’s gloves,” he recalled.
“She put her hand into the steaming liquid nitrogen and pulled out a package of stem cells and put in a bath and warmed it up to 37 degrees . . . I have told people it looked a bit like frozen salmon from the freezer of a supermarket. She pulled out three packets of this . . using a drip they put it into my body, and as it regenerated, that started my recovery.”
The stem cells had travelled some distance. The donor was Finlay Waddell, a 20-year-old medical student at the University of Dundee, who was 18 at the time and had travelled down to Sheffield to make the donation. The two men met last month, giving Bishop Hancock the opportunity thank Mr Waddell “for giving me my life back”.
Bishop Hancock, Bishop of Bath & Wells from 2014 to 2021, was diagnosed with leukaemia in July 2020 and received chemotherapy at a hospital in Taunton before being transferred to Bristol for his stem-cell transplant (News, 14 August 2020). “If I hadn’t got a donor, I wouldn’t be here: it’s absolutely as clear as that,” he said. With no guarantee of a donor, he received the “remarkable” news from a Macmillan nurse that thousands of potential matches had been identified.
Mr Waddell had signed up to the register at the age of 16, after the Anthony Nolan charity, which connects people with blood cancer and those willing to donate their stem cells through a stem-cell register, made a visit to his school. He was one of a large group of students who signed up and provided a swab.
Just before starting university, Mr Waddell was contacted and asked to provide a blood sample, to find out whether he might be the right match for a patient in need of a donation. It was a “weird time” because of the lockdown, he recalled this week. “A nurse came to my house in full PPE . . . It was the first time someone outside my family had been in the house all year.” Some time lapsed before he was contacted again to undergo further assessment, which entailed travelling to Sheffield for further tests.
A hotel was booked for three days, and he was told that he might need to be plugged into the transfer machine for six hours on the first day and then more on a second day; but the process — plasmapheresis — took only an hour and a half. He had already received injections to stimulate the production of stem cells.
At the time of the transplant, Bishop Hancock had already received further chemotherapy treatment and been isolated in hospital. He was extremely vulnerable to infection, and Covid-19 posed an additional risk. He was unable to receive visitors and was unable to open windows or doors; he remembers waving to his wife, Jane, through a window.
While there was no guarantee of the transplant’s success, Bishop Hancock says, he was “buoyed up by the prayers and the love of friends and family”. He received messages from people around the diocese and across the world, many of whom he had never met. Another source of strength was “the absolute professionalism and care of the staff. They were so personal and so kind . . . Even though it was a very intensive drug regime and a very harrowing process, I always had the belief — I think it was belief, not just hope — that I would get better.”
Unable, initially, to walk from his bed to the other side of the room, he told himself “when I’m better I’ll go climb a mountain, to thank the Lord.” He achieved that recently by climbing Helvellyn, in the Lake District, with a friend. His aspiration to go for a walk on the family’s favourite beach, Lantic Bay, in Cornwall, was realised after leaving hospital: “It was a glorious sunny day, everything I could have hoped for.”
For months after the transplant, Bishop Hancock and Mr Waddell knew almost nothing about each other. Bishop Hancock knew that his donor was an 18-year-old man, while Mr Waddell did not know whether the recipient of his donation had survived. But, as there were signs that the transplant had been successful, the two were put in touch and exchanged emails. Last month, Bishop Hancock and his wife travelled to Dundee, where they took Mr Waddell and his parents and girlfriend out for dinner.
“It was a meeting between a 20-year-old man and a 67-year-old man, and in some senses we’ve got nothing in common, and yet, when we met and had supper together, we just hugged each other, and there was such delight, and I was able to thank him,” Bishop Hancock said.
He gave Mr Waddell’s mother a tea towel printed with the words from Ecclesiastes (“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. . .”), telling her that “your son has given me the gift of time, and I have now seen two of my grandchildren who were born whilst I was in hospital.”
Mr Waddell, who is now in his third year of studies, described the meeting as “pretty awesome . . . It was really cool to see that this person who I had indirectly been a very strange part of their life was actually this real and very cool person who had all of this life experience. It was really, really rewarding.”
As a medical student, he said that the experience had made him realise the importance of third-sector organisations. “For something like this, you can’t mobilise and motivate enough people to be on a register to potentially donate without the help of organisations like Anthony Nolan. What people always say is that I saved Peter’s life, which I think might be technically true, but I think really the step where something changed significantly in order for Peter to be able to get that donation is when Anthony Nolan happened to come to my school and I happened to sign up.”
He promotes signing up: “It’s always worth doing, because you have the potential to become a part of someone else’s life in a unique way.”
Today, Bishop Hancock feels “a deep sense of thankfulness to be alive . . . being well enough to enjoy life and God’s incredible creation”. He has also been left with a “profound appreciation” of the NHS, from which he received “marvellous” treatment.
The chief executive of Anthony Nolan, Henny Braund, said: “It’s brilliant to see how well Peter is doing, and seeing that he’s been able to meet Finlay and his family is so uplifting.
“I can’t overstate the impact that donors like Finlay make on the lives of blood-cancer patients and their families. I hope he feels proud of what he’s done, offering Peter a second chance at life.
“Signing up to be a potential donor is quick and easy. If you’re aged 16-30, simply visit the Anthony Nolan website and, after completing a short form, you’ll be sent a swab pack in the post, which you should complete and send back to Anthony Nolan. Becoming a life-saver has never been simpler.”