'Saving a stranger's life with my stem cells felt like winning the lottery'

Blood cancer: Symptoms explained by healthcare professionals

Alex Christopher, 35, now calls Patrick Languzzi, 56, “his brother” having “given him a second chance” following Patrick’s battle with acute myeloid leukemia. When Patrick was diagnosed with the rare cancer, medics feared the worst and gave him a 3 per cent chance of survival. The father of one needed a bone stem cell match to have any chance of saving his life but, within weeks, went under the knife to receive Alex’s donation.

Alex, from Chorley, Lancashire, had joined the stem cell register and had a bone marrow donation months prior on a whim. He was blissfully unaware he had saved a life until months after Patrick’s surgery.

Alex, who has a baby daughter, said: “Previous to this, I had never had an operation or even given blood.

“I first signed up after a colleague at work had blood cancer, so it inspired me. 

“The risks were so small, mainly because of the advancement in medical science. It was a hassle-free process and I saved a life.”

Stem cell donors can opt in for their details to be sent to potential recipients six months after the transplants.

Alex, who works for a compliance investment bank, agreed to do this and Patrick initially sent him an email to thank him for saving his life.

And Patrick flew more than 3,000 miles from his home in Boston, Massachusetts, to finally meet Alex in person in May.

Patrick and Alex

Patrick Languzzi and Alex Christopher have become ‘brothers’ (Image: Supplied)

I just told him I loved him. Those were the first words out of my mouth

Patrick Languzzi, stem cell recipient

“I just told him I loved him. Those were the first words out of my mouth,” Patrick said.

“It was pretty emotional. 

“It was just really great to meet him. I had to pinch myself because how many people have that opportunity? I survived and actually got to meet the person who helped me do that. 

“We call each other brothers now and that’s what it’s like, as if we are family. I only had one match so it was unbelievable.

“When I got diagnosed, I said to my wife ‘I just want to live long enough to see our son graduate’ and luckily I did. It happened in June and it was so emotional.

“It has absolutely saved my life. My outlook was pretty bleak before the procedure.”

Patrick and Alex hug at the airport

Patrick Languzzi (back to camera) and Alex Christopher hug at an emotional meeting (Image: Supplied)

Dad-to-one Alex decided to donate stem cells when his boss and friend, Peter McCleave, was diagnosed with myeloma in 2018. 

He was not a match for Peter, but less than six months later, he matched with Patrick, who’d suffered fatigue, frequent nosebleeds and bloodshot eyes before his cancer diagnosis.

Alex continued: “I saved Patrick’s life and it was like winning the lottery but I didn’t even need to pay for a ticket.

“I would do it again if I could without a doubt. I was not aware really of stem cell donation and, even when I was, I didn’t realise how important it would be to someone’s life. 

“It hasn’t dawned on me quite what I’ve done. It just seemed at the time a simple thing to do, an act that would help someone somewhere. It is difficult to gauge the impact I suppose but ultimately it can have such a massive impact on someone’s life.”

But an email Patrick sent Alex, his first contact, days before Christmas last year “broke” the donor.

He added: “I received an email from Patrick and it read: ‘Hello, you saved my life. Thank you.’ It broke me. I cried at the email and it only then started to feel real for me. I then was aware of the impact it had on his life. He has been able to attend his son’s graduation.  

“You don’t know anything about the recipient until six months after the procedure, and only if you agree to your details being shared and vice versa. In my instance, I agreed to give my details and I was, I suppose, excited about that. I was excited but wanted to respect Patrick’s privacy too.

“Patrick was at death’s door. He was given a 3 per cent chance of survival.”

Alex and Patrick

Alex (left) donated his stem cells which saved Patrick’s life (Image: Supplied)

DKMS, an international nonprofit bone marrow donor centre, hosted a gala which Alex and Patrick attended in May.

Alex has been working with the charity since his donation.

The father said: “I feel in debt to DKMS, as they gave me a chance to save a life. Although they are a charity, they covered all costs. I don’t think people realise how much money the whole process is worth with all those medical check-ups, travelling expenditures and so on. It shows how much they care for a human life. 

“Being among people who are so invested in what they believe in could alone be a valid reason to sign up. Even if you cannot donate because of some health conditions, spread awareness, fundraise money – help as you can.”

Alex Christopher in hospital

Alex, from Lancashire, spoke of his joy after the procedure (Image: Supplied)

But every 20 minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with blood cancer and the register of stem cell donors – who are needed to save thousands of patients’ lives – does not currently meet the demand. 

The charity continues to feel the aftershocks of the pandemic, with registrations down 50 per cent compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Only one in three patients will find a matching donor within their family, which means two in three have to rely on a generous stranger registering as a stem cell donor with a charity like DKMS, just like Alex did. 

Patrick, a biotech professional, said: “My goal at this moment is to help others, help raise awareness of this.

“When the doctor said, those years ago, that ‘this is not good’, I was shocked. I didn’t ever think the symptoms would be those of cancer.  

“It really changed my life because I’ve been given a second chance here. I can’t put into words how grateful I am but I wanted to give back, so to speak, since late last year and so was delighted to be able to meet Alex.

“We certainly will remain in touch. There’s no doubt about that.”

If you are aged between 17-55 and in general good health you can sign up for a home swab kit online at https://www.dkms.org.uk/register-now.

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