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Daughter pleads for people to join stem cell donor register and help save her dad

The family of a much-loved grandfather, who has been given just weeks to live without a stem cell transplant, is calling for donors to come forward and save his life.

Cycling enthusiast Terry Brownbill, a former journalist from Cambridge, was fit and well until November, when he was struck down with acute myeloid leukaemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer.

Terry Brownbill holding granddaughter Orla
Terry Brownbill holding granddaughter Orla

The 69-year-old only found out he had the condition after failing to recover from a bout of Covid and he almost died before his daughter was able to persuade his GP practice to send him to Addenbrooke’s for blood tests.

They revealed the leukaemia and further tests have shown that due to his rare genetic heritage, Terry has no matches on the stem cell donor register and needs someone to step forward to help him.

Now his daughter, Jessica Brownbill, 33, a mental health nurse, is asking people to consider joining the register – which requires a simple cheek swab – to help save her dad’s life and the lives of others.

She said: “I’m desperate to save my dad and getting him a stem cell transplant would be the best Christmas present ever.

“He has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia and in order to survive it, he needs to have a stem cell transplant. At the moment there is no stem cell match on the worldwide register for my dad.

“Before he was admitted to hospital on November 17, my dad was fit and well and had been to visit my brother in Canada, where he went biking.

“He’s a very active person and he is really involved with the family and looks after his grandchildren. He does so much for me and my kids and we think the world of him. Since he retired he has been training to be an artist, which is his lifelong ambition, and has just built a studio in his back garden.”

Jessica only realised something was seriously wrong with her father when he caught Covid and seemed to become gravely ill very quickly.

“I was sending him food and painkillers and energy drinks – things to help him get better – and each day I FaceTimed him and saw he was looking worse and worse,” she said.

“I had a bit of a battle with the GP to get them to understand something else was going on. They told me he just had common symptoms and he was basically absolutely fine – there was nothing to cause concern.

Grandfather Terry Brownbill with grandchildren Jasper (8) and Orla (18 months) and his daughter, Jessica Brownbill
Grandfather Terry Brownbill with grandchildren Jasper (8) and Orla (18 months) and his daughter, Jessica Brownbill

“But Dad isn’t ever ill. I don’t ever remember him being ill my whole life. He had Covid last year and was absolutely fine with it. This was different. He was lying in bed all the time and just looked very poorly. He said to me on the Friday, ‘If I carry on like this, I’m going to be dead within a few days’. I left work and rang his GP to have this battle. Eventually she agreed to send an ambulance and, within hours of being in A&E, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. His white cell count was really high.”

Now Terry has been admitted to Addenbrooke’s and has received his first round of chemotherapy, which began last week.

“Now he’s receiving amazing care,” says Jessica. “The doctors and nurses are brilliant. We were hopeful that the chemotherapy would be enough and would cure him. He will have four rounds. Unfortunately, two days ago, we were told that chemotherapy wouldn’t be enough. And that Dad has three genetic mutations which make his leukaemia higher risk. They said that in order to survive, he needs to have a stem cell transplant. Then the next blow is they said, ‘We’ve searched the worldwide register and that is no match for you’.

“I felt devastated and desperate hearing that. Dad is being really brave, keeping really positive and fighting as hard as he can. But there’s only so much he can do now. It’s up to someone else to come and save him and he needs that help really quickly.

“He will have four rounds of chemo over the next eight weeks and then after that he has to have a stem cell transplant if he’s going to live.

“I’d never heard of the stem cell donor register, but it’s very simple to join – you just need a cheek swab. I would urge everyone to think about joining so you could perhaps save my dad’s life or someone else’s. They only do the stem cell transplants as a last resort, so it’s a life-saving treatment. Without that treatment, somebody would die.”

It is simple to sign up to the stem cell donor register through The Anthony Nolan Trust. The charity explains that there are two ways people could be asked to donate if they are found to be a match.

Terry and Jessica Brownbill
Terry and Jessica Brownbill

Most donors, around 90 per cent, donate via their bloodstream. In this case they receive a course of injections for a few days before, and then go into hospital for the day, where stem cells are collected from their bloodstream over four or five hours and filtered out using a special machine.

The other 10 per cent of people donate through their bone marrow. The cells are collected from their hip bone while they are under a general anaesthetic. This would require a stay in hospital for two nights. For anyone who feels they could offer this life-saving donation, there is more information at anthonynolan.org.

Jessica said: “This has flipped our world upside down. We desperately need to find a stem cell donor match to save Dad’s life in the next eight weeks. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, but there will be someone somewhere who matches and not a lot of people are aware that they can give somebody this gift of life so easily. I would be forever grateful to every person that can join the stem cell register – not only to save my dad’s life but potentially save other people, children and adults, whose lives are devastated by blood cancer.”

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