Four days before Abdalla Osman was to fly to Switzerland to donate stem cells to save his brother’s life, lockdown left them stranded 700 miles apart with time running out.
The transplant was 60-year-old Husein’s only hope of surviving aggressive blood cancer and Abdalla, 53, was devastated, fearing they might never see each other again.
Hospital worker Abdalla, from Southampton, says: “It was heartbreaking. Husein was like a father figure to me when we were growing up.
“You cannot imagine the relief when the doctors told me I could be his donor.
“I had the chance to save him and repay all his kindness. Then the coronavirus hit and it destroyed everything.
“I feared it would cost my brother’s life. I was worried we would lose him before I had a chance to donate.”
Husein became ill in July last year just after the brothers had returned from a holiday together in Istanbul.
Husein started vomiting and his gums began bleeding.
He lost his appetite and, despite feeling tired all the time, he struggled to sleep.
Blood tests revealed he had acute myeloid leukaemia, an aggressive disease that caused his immune system to produce dangerous numbers of faulty white blood cells.
Husein began chemotherapy and Abdalla requested emergency leave to visit him in hospital near his home on the Swiss border with Germany.
Abdalla says: “I booked the first available flight. Working for the NHS, it is hard seeing any human suffering, let alone your own brother.
“He had lost his hair, you could see he was ill. It was scary.”
Doctors soon realised chemotherapy might not be enough to cure Husein, so ran tests to check if Abdalla could donate stem cells to his brother.
Siblings are rarely suitable donors as they inherit different genetic material from each parent, but Abdalla was a good match.
Husein says: “When the doctor told me, I was so emotional I cried.
“Abdalla told me I would be OK and we would go on holiday together again soon. That gave me belief I could overcome this.”
When lockdown sent the plan into chaos, the brothers were in despair.
Husein says: “I thought there was no hope whatsoever.”
But then the UK charity Anthony Nolan stepped in to arrange for Abdalla to donate the stem cells in London, although the process remained fraught with difficulties.
Two of his colleagues in the haematology laboratory at Southampton General Hospital had already been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Abdalla self-isolated for four weeks to avoid the virus and ensure the transplant could go ahead.
He left his house just once to visit a doctor, who carried out a series of preliminary tests, and saw only one other person – a nurse who visited his flat and gave him an injection to make his body release stem cells into the blood, making them easier to harvest.
Abdalla says: “It felt very strange, not seeing anyone, but I was on a mission.
“I spent a lot of time learning about leukaemia and the transplant, there was nothing else to do.
“I was so worried I couldn’t sleep properly.”
Anthony Nolan paid for Abdalla to travel to London in April.
The cells were tested to ensure they were free of coronavirus and safe for transplant, before being frozen and flown to Switzerland the next day.
Abdalla says: “You cannot imagine the relief when I found out I didn’t have the virus.
“I immediately rang my brother and told him everything was OK, we had what we needed. It was very emotional.”
Days later, Husein had the transplant, the first from a sibling to be carried out in Switzerland.
He is still on medication, but it was a success and he is making a steady recovery.
Abdalla hopes to visit in October.
Husein says: “I am looking forward to the day my brother can visit me, so we can share a meal and a laugh.
“Then I can thank him properly and plan that trip to Cuba.
“If it wasn’t for Anthony Nolan, I don’t think I would be alive today.
“I owe everything to the charity and my brother. They will always be in my heart.”
- Visit anthonynolan.org to join the stem cell donor register. Tomorrow is World Marrow Donor Day. For details go to worldmarrowdonorday.org