A Derry mother has issued an impassioned plea to the people of Derry to come forward to help save her son’s life by joining the bone marrow donor register.
Vonny Quigley’s eldest son Bill (39) was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in September last year. Immediately his sisters were tested to see if they would make suitable donors and the family were ecstatic when tests showed his youngest sister, Alison, 32, was a 100% match.
With just days until treatment was due to start to prepare Bill for the transplant, the family were devastated when Alison was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma and would no longer be able to offer her brother the life saving marrow.
“I looked around my dinner table on Mother’s Day and I felt my heart sink to my boots. Who knows who will be round my table next year? Will Bill and Alison be there?
“As a mammy I have to do what I can to help my children - and that involves asking the people of Derry to do all they can to help us battle this, and that is what I will do.”
Bill, who is father to two young boys, was given the shocking news that he has Leukaemia after going to the doctor’s last year because he was feeling a bit run down. “I was pale and tired all the time. I could sleep for 11 hours and still be tired and was drinking a lot of Red Bull to keep me going but I thought I was just overdoing it. I went to the chemist for a multivitamin and she suggested I went to the doctors for a blood test.
“I didn’t expect to be told I had Leukaemia. It was a complete bolt out of the blue.”
The positive news for Bill was that he was told at diagnosis that while the form of Leukaemia he had was quite aggressive it was also one of the more treatable forms of the disease. However a full cure is reliant on a successful bone marrow transplant.
While Bill began a course of chemotherapy his three sisters underwent blood tests to see if they were a match. “I had no hesitation in being tested,” Alison said. “I just want to help Bill.”
When the news came just before Christmas that she was a 100% match she said she was “buzzing”. “I got the news when I was in Toys R Us with my boyfriend and I was just buzzing. I was so happy. It was the best Christmas present ever.”
Once identified as a donor Alison had to undergo a raft of further tests to ensure she was in the best of health. All the tests were passed successfully but while she was being tested Alison decided to get a raised lump on her arm checked out with her doctor.
Although her doctor was relatively unconcerned, Alison was referred to Dr Podmore at Altnagelvin just to be on the safe side.
“When I showed Dr Podmore the lump on my arm she assured me it was nothing to be worried about. It was just as I was about to leave her surgery that I decided to mention that I had a mole on my leg which had changed appearance.
“Dr. Podmore looked at the mole and booked me in to have the lump removed five days later.”
On April 1, Alison took the devastating call that the lump was malignant. “Dr Podmore called me at home. She said she wouldn’t normally call people at home but she knew that we were due to start with the transplant procedure in ten days and she said there was time to call me in for an appointment.
“Even with treatment there will still be melanoma cells in my body and while a healthy person could fight those off, Bill would not be able to.
“He will be on immuno-suppressants for two years after the transplant and his body would not have been able to take it.”
Alison said that the diagnosis left her “heartbroken”. “I don’t want to sound like a martyr but my concern is not for me. I don’t care that I have cancer - as far as I’m concerned that is easy fixed. I’m concerned about Bill.
“And Bill, well he doesn’t care about his cancer, he just wants me to be better.”
Alison will undergo further surgery next week to determine if her cancer has spread and Bill’s transplant had been called off.
“I will continue to get chemotherapy,” Bill said, “But there is only so much chemotherapy they can give you. Your body can only take so much.”
Vonny said: “We should have been in Belfast now. We have all the medication Alison was supposed to take in the fridge. It seemed like we were so close and now we don’t know how things will go. To have my two children facing cancer - it is just unbelievable.”
Doctors have been able to tell Bill they think there is a 25-30% chance they will find a suitable match for him. However just one in 400,000 people will be a match for the Derry father and only 400 people are currently on the bone marrow register in Northern Ireland.
e search will be widened outside of Northern Ireland,” Bill said. “They will look to England and Western Europe but we have been told the best chance of finding a match is within the local gene pool.”
The family are keen to clarify any misconceptions about the bone marrow donation procedure. “Getting tested is easy. It is the matter of a simple blood test. The process of the donation is similar to dialysis. Your blood is taken out, put through a machine to have the stem cells removed, and put back in your body. People tend to think of donation as major surgery or very invasive. Bone marrow can be taken out through your hip, which people can be nervous about, but the option is there of a simple blood transfusion,” Alison said.
“If only everything in life could be dealt with as easily,” Bill said.
Anyone who wants to be tested for the bone marrow register can do so by attending any blood donation session and requesting they be screened for the register.
On the register
With only 400 people on the Northern Ireland register, Bill and Alison are not only thinking of their own needs. “No one knows where Leukaemia will strike. More people generally need to be on the register.”
The Northern Ireland Blood Donation Service will be holding donor sessions in Derry this week - at which you can asked to be screened. Blood donation sessions will be held on Monday at Tuesday at Guildhall Square, on Tuesday at Magee College and on Wednesday at Clooney Hall.
“Our best chance is that we get someone local to donate,” Vonny said. “I’d ask everyone to think what they would do it if were their children and try and help mine.”