The beginning of our journey

In May 2018, Jeff and Yvonne Whittaker were left devastated when their son William was diagnosed with severe aplastic anaemia.

Yvonne says:

“William is 13 years old and constantly on the go - running around with friends or playing sport. He seemed drained of energy and I noticed a meningitis-like rash on his body. Alarm bells rang and we rushed him to our GP who immediately referred him for tests at Nottingham University Hospital.”

It took 6 days and 2 bone marrow biopsies for doctors to deliver the terrible news that William had aplastic anaemia. His red, white blood cells and platelets had plummeted, reducing the amount of oxygen getting to his muscles. This explained William’s low energy and the rash, which was actually internal bleeding because his blood couldn’t clot.

Rebecca to the rescue

The only cure was a bone marrow transplant we were told, but because William was evidently at an advanced stage, time wasn’t on our side. We could either go on the Antony Nolan register, which might take weeks or months to find a suitable match because of the shortage of donors or use a sibling’s bone marrow. With just a one in four chance of being a match, his older sister Rebecca stepped up. It took a full week to find out she was a perfect match, a week of minimal sleep on all our parts as William went downhill.

It was still a big ask for Rebecca to step up though, this was just weeks before her 'A' Levels, so the worst possible timing. Add in the risks of the procedure, we knew how concerned she was, but with William needing increasingly frequent blood transfusions to stay alive, we had to act quickly. Rebecca didn’t want a big deal made of it, but we all told her how she was saving William’s life, what a hero she was.

When we found out we would be going over 75 miles to Leeds Children’s Hospital for the procedure and that only one of us could be with William on the ward, we began to worry. But then we were told about The Sick Children’s Trust, who offered us a room in their ‘Home from Home,’ Eckersley House, where we could stay while William received the care he so desperately needed.

It wasn’t just the financial cost of spending weeks in a nearby hotel or spending huge amounts of money on petrol every day, but the emotional ease of never being more than a few minutes from your child’s side.

William underwent a course of chemotherapy to prepare his body while Rebecca had the stem cells from her bone marrow harvested. Within six hours of them being collected, William began to receive the cells that the specialists hoped would save his life.

No plain sailing

As it happens, Rebecca didn’t react at all well to the anaesthetic, it took her over two days to wake up and when she did come around, she was being sick continuously. Not knowing if the transplant had been a success, it was a horrific situation for both my babies, something no mum should have to live through.

Rebecca made a full recovery, but William ended up spending almost three months in isolation because his immune system had effectively been wiped out. We knew at any point his body could still reject the bone marrow, but very slowly his blood cell count rose and the spark in his eyes returned. However tough these last few weeks have been, we know things would’ve been much worse if Rebecca hadn’t been a match and stepped up to save his life.

William finally came home on 24th September, but will still need regular trips to our local hospital for fluid top-ups for his kidneys, along with a weekly check-up in Leeds. His appetite has improved and he’s loving seeing his friends again, although he likely won’t be back at school until the new year.

We know how lucky we were, how more people need to talk about organ donation and help save more lives. It’s only because of Rebecca that we escaped that nightmare wait which we know so many other families go through. With William deteriorating so quickly, there really was a very strong chance he wouldn’t be here now.