Meet the selfless donors who gave the ultimate gifts – to strangers
Meet the selfless donors who gave the ultimate gifts – to strangers: From a man who donated his stem cells to save a life, to the woman who helped a couple start a family and the five-year-old who spent years growing her hair for children with cancer
Giving presents to family and friends is something we enjoy but expect to do. But it takes a special person to give to a total stranger, particularly if it’s an anonymous donation to someone you may never meet — and you are literally giving away part of yourself. This is known as altruistic donation and it’s exactly what these inspiring people have done.
The stem cell donor
Alex Christopher, 35, a bank compliance manager, lives with wife Katy, 32, a mortgage manager, and daughter Willow, one, in Lancashire. Alex donated his stem cells in February 2019 and later met the recipient, Patrick Languzzi, 56, an actor and bodybuilder, who lives in the U.S. Alex says:
The magnitude of what I’d done didn’t really hit me until that first email from Patrick.
I knew the blood cancer patient who’d received my donated blood cells was alive, but I hadn’t actually ever expected to hear from him. Then I was told he wanted to get in touch.
And 32 months after the transfusion I got an email, saying: ‘You’ve saved my life — thank you.’ It felt surreal — here this person was whose life I’d saved.
Then in May this year, six months after that first email, Patrick travelled from the U.S. to meet me. At Heathrow when he and his family arrived, Patrick gave me the biggest bear-hug I’d ever had.
Thanks to my donation, Patrick is enjoying life with his wife, Ezzy, and son Patrick Junior; he’d been given a 3 per cent chance of surviving after his diagnosis with acute myeloid leukaemia.
Alex Christopher, 35, a bank compliance manager, lives with wife Katy, 32, a mortgage manager, and daughter Willow, one, in Lancashire. Alex donated his stem cells in February 2019 and later met the recipient, Patrick Languzzi, 56, an actor and bodybuilder, who lives in the U.S
After the donation in 2019, Patrick battled with graft versus host disease (when the body tries to reject new stem cells) — his organs started shutting down. But he pulled through.
Katy and I spent a couple of days with the family in London. We don’t have much in common — he loves exercise, I don’t, though he has inspired me to start looking after my own body — but the friendship that developed was easy straight away and incredibly special.
It felt as if Patrick and I were like brothers and we hope to visit them in the States next year.
I originally became a stem cell donor after a good friend and colleague, Peter McCleave, was diagnosed with myeloma, a blood cancer, in 2018.
On learning that Peter needed a stem cell (or bone marrow) transplant, I signed up to donate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a match for Peter — but a year later I got a call from the charity, DKMS, which organises stem cell donations, saying I’d been identified as a match with someone.
I was still willing, though petrified of the thought they might have to extract my bone marrow from my spine.
I later discovered this only happens in 10 per cent of donations, the rest are taken via blood — but I would have done it anyway.
After blood tests and a medical to check I was a definite match, I was given two hormone booster injections to increase my stem cell production for three days to ensure I was also left with a healthy stem cell count myself after the four-hour procedure, which took place at a private clinic in London.
Blood was taken from one of my arms, put through a machine to extract the stem cells, and then put back into the other arm.
I felt fine afterwards. Katy and I went sightseeing around London.
Six months later I got a letter from DKMS telling me that my recipient was still alive — which was fantastic.
I got a further update six months after that; after another year I was told my recipient’s name was Patrick and he lived in the U.S.
I knew I would get these details but it was a complete surprise when he got in touch.
On his UK visit, Patrick met Peter too, which was lovely. Unfortunately Peter is still waiting for his transplant — he’s been waiting for five years and was given a seven-year survival prognosis; we pray a donor is found for him soon.
I’m still on the donor list — I’d gladly do it again.
To know you’ve saved someone’s life is the most affirming thing you can ever do.
The liver donor
David Boulton, 27, an NHS carer, lives in York. He donated part of his liver to a stranger in the spring this year. David says:
I didn’t know that I would help to save a child’s life when I signed up to be an altruistic donor — but it’s great to know that with the medics’ skill and care, and my donation, we did.
As a Christian, I believe that loving and helping others is the point of life — in 2015 and 2016, aged 20, I helped out in the refugee crisis in Turkey.
I believe everyone’s life is just as precious as my own, and that’s why I was spurred to donate part of my liver to a stranger.
I first heard about altruistic donation on a Radio 4 programme about the liver and the wonderful things it does for us.
They interviewed a man who’d donated part of his liver and I thought: I could do that. Even after donating up to 60 per cent of the organ, it grows back full size in about eight weeks.
David Boulton, 27, an NHS carer, lives in York. He donated part of his liver to a stranger in the spring this year
My family and girlfriend were very supportive, although she thought I was a bit crazy.
I contacted the liver transplant unit at St James’s Hospital in Leeds and was given the choice of donating the left side of my liver (which was smaller so could help a child) or the larger, right side (for an adult).
I chose the left, reasoning that a younger recipient would potentially have more quality of life years ahead.
After completing the health, psychiatric and safeguarding checks, I got a call two months later to say my liver was a match for a toddler with total liver failure.
I was admitted to the hospital the next day.
The surgeons had previously told me there was a 90 per cent chance the transplant would give the patient at least five more years, but a 10 per cent chance it wouldn’t work. I believed it was worth trying.
I was in great physical health, but I knew things were going to be different after the operation. Just a couple of days before I’d been rock climbing and giving patients bed washes.
Now, I was the patient having bed washes!
The pain only lasted ten days — and just two months after that I could even enjoy a pint again.
I was off work for six months, because I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than 5kg.
Six months on, though, I’m back to work, rock climbing and dancing the nights away. I’d be willing to do it again — although medical guidelines forbid donating my liver twice, I’m considering giving a kidney if allowed.
The transplant team told me a couple of months after the surgery that the child who received my liver was doing really well and was back home. I was absolutely delighted.
The brilliant surgeons and nurses at St James’s Hospital did all the hard work, I just provided the raw material.
The kidney donor
Val Cooper, 48, a volunteer coordinator at a drop-in cafe, lives with partner Colin, 58, a golf course greenkeeper, in Glen Urquhart, near Inverness. Val, who has a son, Angus, 18, donated her kidney in June 2021 and has since been in contact with the recipient, Chris Madden, 42, an electrical engineer from Edinburgh. Val says:
I had reached a point in life where I questioned my purpose — Angus was grown up and I just wanted to make a difference.
Then I read an article about altruistic kidney donation.
It felt like the right thing to do, so I contacted the transplant unit at my local hospital in Inverness.
Colin was fully supportive when I explained how I felt.
Though, to be honest, if he had wanted to donate his kidney rather than me then I would have been worried sick because it’s such a big operation.
I went through 12 months of tests, checking my kidney function, blood pressure and mental health to see if I was fit to donate.
Val Cooper, 48, a volunteer coordinator at a drop-in cafe, lives with partner Colin, 58, a golf course greenkeeper, in Glen Urquhart, near Inverness. Val, who has a son, Angus, 18, donated her kidney in June 2021 and has since been in contact with the recipient, Chris Madden, 42, an electrical engineer from Edinburgh
Although I’d always been healthy, these revealed an aneurysm [i.e. a bulge] on the artery to my right kidney. It would have kept growing and eventually burst, which would have been life-threatening for me.
It was only through the tests for donation that it was spotted. I felt so lucky about this.
The hospital gave me the option of not donating and being monitored every 12 months (when the aneurysm got to a certain size they may have operated to put a stent in to support the blood vessel).
Or I could donate the right kidney — the blood vessel
would be repaired, and given to the recipient.
It was the obvious choice to go ahead with the transplant — but it was put on hold after the lockdown was announced in March 2020, and eventually took place in June 2021.
I was a little apprehensive, having never had an operation before, but it felt right.
When I came round, the nursing staff told me it had gone well, but they couldn’t give me any details about my recipient. I was back at work six weeks afterwards.
Around that time, I got a letter, out of the blue, through the hospital, from Chris.
He told me his recovery was going well, which was a massive relief.
Up until then, I hadn’t even known who the recipient was. I had naturally been curious — but knew I might never find out. I felt excited and emotional to get that letter, telling me how quickly he had gone downhill because of a kidney disease, IgA nephropathy, he had developed as an adult, which meant his kidney function had dropped to just 5 per cent.
Now, he could do simple things such as putting his children to bed; before, he had been too exhausted.
I was so happy to hear that my kidney had done its job.
Chris and I met in Inverness for the first time last month. It was amazing to see how healthy he was.
Now I have addressed my fear about not doing something useful.
My son Angus told me last week that he did not think he would have been able to do it himself and was very proud of me — which meant so much.
Trip to the hairdresser moved young Izzie to act
Michele Cox, 46, lives with husband Paul, 55, in Buxton, Derbyshire. They run a promotional gifts business and have two daughters Izzie, 13, and Jemima, 12. Izzie and Michele both donated their hair in July to the Little Princess Trust, which makes wigs for children who have lost their hair because of cancer treatment.
Michele says: The idea was originally my daughter Izzie’s. She decided to donate her hair aged only five after reading about the scheme on a leaflet while she was sitting in the hairdressers.
She was so young but it really moved her. It took her three and a half years to grow it long enough — it needs to be 12 in (30.5 cm) or more. By the time she was nine, it had grown to 3 ft (91.4 cm).
After she had it cut off, she was teased at school because it was really short; other children asked her if she was a boy or a girl. But she didn’t let it bother her. She knew that someone could wear a wig and have more confidence, thanks to her hair.
The second time, she asked me to do it with her. It took us three years and my hair grew down to my waist. I didn’t know it could grow this long! It was very heavy and got caught up in my shopping basket and car doors too.
We both managed to grow our hair to 1.5 ft (45.7 cm). We feel proud of what we have done; we plan to donate again.
Izzie is such a caring person. She’s also a wellbeing ambassador at her school, helping to support other pupils who are struggling. I’m so proud of her. We also managed to raise nearly £1,000 in sponsorship for the Little Princess Trust.
We don’t know who we helped, but when we see little girls on the charity’s website and how natural their wigs look, it makes us feel like it’s been worthwhile.
To be able to boost their confidence when they are going through gruelling cancer treatment is the best feeling.
Izzie says: I like to make people feel better. I smile in the school corridor to people who are having a bad day.
I’m growing my hair again as I want to carry on donating. I’d like to be a psychologist or marine biologist when I grow up, but I love helping people, too.
My next aim is to help a charity that exercises dogs for their elderly owners.
Tragedy that inspired Liz to become an egg donor
Liz Quick, 37, a radiographer, lives with her husband Nathan, 38, an engineer, in Littlehampton, West Sussex, and their daughter, 12, and son, nine. Liz donated her eggs to Felix De Carvalho, 40, an adolescent psychiatrist, and his husband Adam Casey, 33, an architect, to enable them to start a family. Liz says:
I was devastated when my cousin took his own life five years ago; it made me re-evaluate how precious life was.
Donating my eggs to enable another couple to have a family like I have felt right. My cousin was gay and if he’d been alive, he would have wanted a family. I wanted to give something back to the gay community as his legacy.
I didn’t want to extend my own family and, with my family and friends’ support, in May 2020 I registered as a potential egg donor with Surrogacy UK.
I was drawn to the profiles of Felix and Adam on the website — they lived just ten minutes down the road from me. We met in July 2020 at our beach hut and had such a good day getting to know each other.
They made a picnic and we talked about normal things, such as places we’d visited, but didn’t discuss egg donation on that day.
Liz Quick, 37, a radiographer, lives with her husband Nathan, 38, an engineer, in Littlehampton, West Sussex, and their daughter, 12, and son, nine. Liz donated her eggs to Felix De Carvalho, 40, an adolescent psychiatrist, and his husband Adam Casey, 33, an architect, to enable them to start a family
I knew I only wanted to go ahead if I felt a connection with Felix and Adam, so we saw lots of each other over the next couple of months. Nathan got on well with them, too.
There was a really easy friendship between us. On the anniversary of my cousin’s passing I offered to donate my eggs to them. It was so emotional. I cried and Felix and Adam just couldn’t contain their excitement.
We went to a fertility clinic [the treatment was paid for by Felix and Adam]. I had scans to check my fertility, as well as counselling. I was asked if I understood the genetic links I would have to any children who were born from my eggs; they wanted to check if I would feel an emotional attachment to them.
They also asked me if my husband and children understood this. My children accepted Felix and Adam as friends and thought it was cool that Mummy could help them have a family. Now, they realise they will share a genetic link to that child and think it’s really special. My son has already asked if the baby can come for a sleepover.
We’ll be known as Auntie Liz and Uncle Nathan and the children will be cousins or special friends.
I had to inject myself daily with hormone-stimulating drugs for two weeks to encourage my body to produce more eggs than usual. I went back to the clinic and 20 eggs were collected and fertilised — and six embryos were created.
I felt a little nauseous for a few days but otherwise I was fine. It was nerve-racking waiting to see if the eggs would fertilise. Felix and Adam also met a surrogate through Surrogacy UK, who lives near them; she’s 26 weeks pregnant with their baby. I couldn’t be happier for them.
They send me every scan of the baby and seeing them decorating their nursery is extra special because I’ve played a part in making that happen.
The baby is due in March and I’m so excited about my friends — as I now consider them — being parents. I’m curious to know what the baby will look like or if it will have my children’s traits! But that’s all.
I’ll meet the baby when it is born and be part of his or her life as a good friend who helped out the family.
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