For some patients with blood cancer, a stem cell donation from a stranger will be their best hope of a cure. That was the situation facing Greg Holgerson, a police officer from New York, when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012.
A shocking correlation
In the days following his diagnosis, he learned that his illness could have been caused by an act of bravery more than a decade earlier, when he was called in to help with the rescue operations at the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks.
“When I first went into hospital after my leukemia diagnosis, they knew I was a police officer,” said Greg. “They asked me if I was at the World Trade Center on the day and told me about the link between the two.”
An overseas hero
Greg had no matching donor in his family, so his doctors searched the worldwide register for an unrelated donor. Astonishingly, he had only one eligible match.
His hero was Sue Harrison, 53, from England. Sue signed up to the Anthony Nolan stem cell donor register in the 1980s after she met her husband Robert, who lost his mother to leukemia before donor registers existed. More than twenty years after joining the Anthony Nolan register, Sue donated her stem cells in London, which were then flown by courier to the United States.
A long-awaited meeting
Patients and donors must remain anonymous for at least two years after the transplant has taken place. After that, depending on the rules of the registry, they can choose to exchange contact details and meet up. Greg and Sue did just that, meeting in New York in May 2016.
“It was very emotional to meet Greg. I can’t imagine what he’s been through. It just seems so unfair that he got his cancer through helping others,” said Sue.
Greg said, “It was an unbelievable moment to finally meet Sue in person and give her a big hug. She’s my hero. It’s impossible to find the words to sum up what she has done for me and my family; “Thank you” just doesn’t seem enough. Put simply — if it wasn’t for her, I might not be here today.”