Leukaemia patient meets stranger who saved her life
Leukaemia patient thanks stem cell donor in emotional first meeting
Last year, a stranger gave this leukaemia patient a lifeline.
The cancer patient, who wants to be known only as Ms Deshi, 32, has had the stranger's stem cells coursing through her veins for more than a year now.
Yesterday, Ms Deshi, a flight attendant, met her donor in a tearful get-together at the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) office to celebrate the successful transplant.
The donor, Ms Sheila A. Nair, 27, an account executive at Sentosa Development Corporation, waited at the BMDP office as Ms Deshi arrived.
Ms Deshi burst into tears at the sight of Ms Sheila and hugged her, before breaking off to say: "You've saved my life, really."
She then hugged Ms Sheila again.
Ms Deshi's mother, Ms Ranikaur, 54, and Dr Tan Lip Kun, 51, a senior consultant haematologist at the National University Hospital (NUH), both also teared, and more hugs were shared.
Ms Deshi told The New Paper: "I was excited and scared at the same time. I was going to meet this beautiful woman whose stem cells are in me right now.
"I may not be able to give her anything in my lifetime, but she gave me a life."
Ms Sheila said: "I consider her my sister now. To think that this affected herself and her family, I'm glad I did it, and I would do it over again."
Before being diagnosed with leukaemia in January last year, Ms Deshi had no clue she was suffering from the disease.
She was leading what she described as a "toxic lifestyle", spending her days overworking, smoking and partying both in Singapore and overseas.
Signs of trouble started surfacing in December 2014 - bruises appeared on her arms and legs, her flu was unceasing, and her menstrual cycle lasted seven to 10 days.
Sensing something amiss, her boyfriend took her to NUHwhile on a date in January 2015.
There, she had her blood tested and was given the diagnosis that night itself.
Ms Deshi said: "I kept asking my doctor if I really had cancer."
She was reduced to guttural reactions.
"But as soon as I was alone with my boyfriend, I burst into tears."
But she did not back down and chose to battle the leukaemia one step at a time.
When she began her first round of chemotherapy the next week, she was not prepared for the side effects, such as fever, diarrhoea and nausea.
She went for her second round of chemotherapy in late March last year.
This time, the chemotherapy took a toll on her physical appearance: she suffered weight loss, hair loss and a darkened skin tone.
"I felt very dejected," she said.
"From being a flight attendant, who smiled and greeted the guests, and could perform all sorts of activities, I was suddenly cooped up in a room with a TV and some books."
Her family and her boyfriend helped see her through the dark days.
Her mother helped to feed her, bathe her and manage her diet. Her boyfriend would sometimes buy her books to lift her spirits.
Dr Tan said Ms Deshi also had a brush with death during a severe bacterial infection on her face.
Ms Deshi said: "My blood count was really low, my face swelled twice the size, and I was so high on morphine I could not recognise who was who."
Then, the good news - a successful match.
"I was so happy. The hospital had been informing me of one bad news after another, and a match in the donor register was just out of my mind," she said.
Her mother, Ms Ranikaur, said: "I kept crying and crying, I was so happy."
Four months after her first diagnosis, Ms Deshi underwent a successful procedure.
Two days ago, Ms Deshi was certified fit to fly and she swore to never return to her old ways.
"Occasionally, I would sip a glass or two of wine, but smoking is absolutely (out)," she said.
"I eat fresh produce, drink juice, swim and run regularly. I am completely happy with my current lifestyle.
"I used to be a grumpy person, but now, even to wake up every morning, I feel very happy."
She did not hesitate to donate
Ten years ago, then teenager Sheila A Nair signed up with the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP).
As the years passed by, she forgot all about it.
Then last year, she got a phone call to ask if she could turn her pledge into reality.
Ms Sheila, now an account executive with Sentosa Development Corporation, agreed without hesitation.
She said: "When they said they were calling from BMDP, I knew straightaway that I had found a match.
"I was really excited, I told her let's do this, and let's do it fast."
LIFESAVER: Ms Sheila A Nair smiles brightly during her first meeting with the recipient of her stem cells, Ms Deshi.
Her decision to become a donor was sparked by a chance encounter with BMDP representatives during a blood donation drive at Potong Pasir Community Centre, when she was 17.
Ms Sheila, now 27, said: "Their representatives walked me through the entire process; it seemed pretty easy."
She was not contacted until February last year. She went for a full-body check-up, followed by DNA testing the following week.
She took five days of medical leave, and during the first four days, she injected herself with growth factor to stimulate the stem cells from the bone marrow to move into the blood stream.
Ms Sheila said: "The pain felt like the body ache you experience while having fever, but magnify that 10 times. However, I knew that if it was painful, it was working well."
On the fifth day, the stem cells were collected using a machine called a cell separator.
She had to rest on a hospital bed for six hours while the stem cells were harvested as the blood flowed from one arm through a plug to the machine and back to her other arm.
Despite the pain and hassle, Ms Sheila said she never once hesitated.
"It didn't matter if I had to go through a few rounds of tests if I knew I could save someone else's life," she said.
Some of her relatives and colleagues had some reservations - the recipient was a stranger, and the procedure was relatively new.
But it turned out well and she felt fine immediately.
Two of her relatives have even registered with BMDP.
Dr Tan Lip Kun, senior consultant haematologist at the National University Hospital, told TNP: "After the procedure, the donor may feel mainly tiredness or aching sensation for two to three days, but there is no long term effect."
How to be a bone marrow donor
Stem cell and bone marrow recipients, like the woman who wanted to be known only as Ms Deshi, owe their lives to strangers.
Thousands of Singaporeans have registered themselves with the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP), a group that matches bone marrow donors with patients.
Set up in 1993, BMDP is a non-profit organisation responsible for building and managing Singapore's only register of volunteer donors.
These donors are willing to donate their bone marrow, and more recently their stem cells, to save the lives of patients with leukaemia and other blood diseases.
BMDP has overseen more than 500 successful bone marrow matches. It also provides a 365-day service to hospitals here to search the local register - and, if necessary, partner registers around the world - for a match.
Every day, six Singaporeans are diagnosed with various life-threatening blood diseases, such as leukaemia and lymphoma.
Many will not survive without transplants using donor bone marrow or stem cells, with just a one in 20,000 chance of finding a matching donor.
There are two procedures to conduct a transplant: either through Bone Marrow Harvest surgery or a Peripheral Stem Cell Harvest.
To sign up and join the local register, request for a postal kit on the BMDP website. It is a cheek swab to capture a DNA sample and put you on the register.
For more information, visit www.bmdp.org