Donating six million stem cells to help save the life of a stranger 3,000 miles away

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Donating six million stem cells to help save the life of a stranger 3,000 miles away

In the first of two interviews to mark the 27th yahrzeit of Sue Harris, Jewish News meets 21-year-old Jacob Harris, who discovered he was a match for a blood cancer patient he'd never met

Pic: Jacob Harris at The London Clinic
Pic: Jacob Harris at The London Clinic

A 21-year-old Jewish man from Leeds has donated precious stem cells in the hope of saving the life of a complete stranger.

Jacob Harris, who studied at Nottingham Trent and is currently on a placement year in the property industry, was encouraged to take a simple swab test after a conversation over a Shabbat meal last summer.

“One of my cousin’s mutual friends, James Whitehill, was in need of a stem cell donor; my cousin came to Friday night dinner and gave everyone a swab test to do that weekend.”

That Shabbat meal appears to be a beshert moment of fate; Jacob’s cousin happened to be volunteering at a swabbing drive in Leeds for DKMS,  a German organisation working in the UK with the Sue Harris Trust to recruit adult stem cell donors for patients with blood cancer. And whilst the odds of not matching are around extremely high, Jacob heard back “really quickly”.

He adds: “I’d just been in Israel for the whole summer doing an apprenticeship and came back to be told I was a potential match.”

Pic: Jacob Harris at The London Clinic

With blood tests confirming that he was healthy, Harris came to London for a full medical assessment on 20 November last year.

He told Jewish News: “I was quite surprised at how quick it all was. I felt a bit surreal, in terms of that I was capable of helping someone in such a way.”

Jacob’s official stem cell donation days were across the 7th and 8th December.

He adds: “The person I was donating to was in Canada. A man in his 50s, but the team were very confidential about his identity. There is a high chance that he was Jewish and none of his family had matched with him.”

On the morning of 7 December, he headed to the London Clinic hospital, and “met with these amazing nurses who talked me through everything. They explained the procedure. They hooked me up on one arm to take blood out, and they filter that to separate the stem cells from the blood cells. I had injections leading up to it to multiply my count. I had two a day for three days. They were quite painful and gave me body aches.”

Harris said: “Surprisingly, I was never scared. I was quite confident going into it, that it was the right thing to do, to help someone else. I didn’t feel that emotional because it felt like such an insignificant thing to do to help someone in such a big way.”

Pic: Jacob Harris at The London Clinic

Jacob Harris was in hospital for up to five hours a day for two days. Whilst undergoing the treatment, he had his laptop, watched Netflix, spoke to the nurses and ate.

He remembers “drinking chocolate milk as they recommend a lot of calcium. The catering team at hospital looked after me with lunch; a sandwich and with some soup. It wasn’t quite smoked salmon and cream cheese but it was close enough.”

The hospital called Jacob back to hospital that first evening for further injections because he was “slightly dehydrated” before returning the following morning.

All in all, the hospital took 6.87 million stem cells over the two days.

Jacob said: “When I’d finished, they were very thankful. The stem cells travelled to Canada the next day for the patient, who had gone through a parallel treatment –with a big boost in their chemotherapy – to prepare him for the infusion.”

It will be at least a year before Harris discovers if his donation was successful. Whilst there is the opportunity to write to the stem cell recipient, he hasn’t sent anything.

He explains that “either one of you can write to each other. I figured if I didn’t hear anything from him, I didn’t want to intrude. He is under no obligation to write and I’m happy with myself for doing it.”

Jacob says his family is very proud: “My cousin that originally set me up to do it was delighted. He thought it was very impactful. All I had to do was sit there for a couple of days – but the person I was helping had probably been in hospital for months. With everything going on in Israel it felt like quite a small piece to help someone else given the extremes of everything else happening.”

DKMS spokesperson Deborah Hyde said: “We’re so grateful to everyone who supports DKMS’s mission to delete blood cancer. Jacob is an inspirational example of how becoming a stem cell donor can give someone needing a transplant a second chance at life. Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with blood cancer, but currently only 3% of the UK population is registered as a stem cell donor. If you’re aged 17-55 and in general good health, it’s quick and easy to sign up at”

Sue Harris Trust secretary Lionel Salama told Jewish News: “Today is Sue’s yahrzeit (12 Adar I), so it’s wonderful to hear such uplifting news. Indeed, her campaign is busier than ever, recruiting donors for this year’s Jewish Swab Week in Gateshead, Manchester and London.”

Now that he’s been found to be a match, there is a possibility that Harris can be called upon again. He said it is “quite an honourable thing to do. It’s such a minor inconvenience but makes such a big impact. There’s no reason people shouldn’t be open to doing it.”

  • 2024 marks the 27th year of the passing of Sue Harris, who together with her friends, founded blood cancer charity, the Sue Harris Campaign in 1993. Sue died on 19th February, 1997 aged 34 years old.
  • Jacob Harris is no relation to Sue Harris.
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