Meeting Magda: 14-year-old survivor meets the woman who gave her the gift of life

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Today, Rachel Ancer meets the woman who saved her life.
Today, Rachel Ancer meets the woman who saved her life.
Getty/ Fiordaliso
  • When Rachel Ancer was 6 years old, she was diagnosed with a bone marrow failure condition called pure red cell aplasia.
  • After a lengthy search for a suitable donor she eventually had a bone marrow transplant in 2017 when she was 8. 
  • She meets her donor, Magda Lewandowska, for the first time.
  • GOOD NEWS DAY IS BACK! News24 celebrates the people restoring pride in our country. Read their stories here

It's not often you get to meet the person who saved your life. But today - Saturday, 1 April - I will do just that. Today, I will be waiting at the airport for Magda Lewandowska's plane to land.

I haven't met Magda, but she is a part of me. We share DNA - hers. This is Magda's first visit to South Africa. Well, that's not quite true. A bit of her has been to South Africa before - her stem cells. They travelled with a special courier from Poland, where she lives, and arrived in Cape Town on 13 March 2017. Her stem cells had come especially for me.   

A day later, on March 14, they were used in my bone marrow transplant. Out of all the millions of people on international bone marrow registries around the world, Magda was the only one whose DNA was a 10/10 match with mine.  

I don't remember much about the bone marrow transplant. I was just 8 years old when it took place in the special isolation ward at Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital. 

I know that I had to have chemotherapy to destroy my faulty bone marrow and that made me sick. I was nauseous and didn't want to eat and remember the nurse stuck a tube down my nose to feed me.   

READ | 'My wife can never doubt I love her': Cape Town husband to walk 600km to raise funds to clear student debt  

I also remember waking up with chunks of hair on the pillow and then one of the nurses came with electric clippers to shave my hair. I remember looking in the mirror at my bald head and hating it.    

When I was 6, I was diagnosed with a rare condition called pure red cell aplasia (PRCA). As Dr Marc Hendricks, my doctor at Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, explained to me, my bone marrow had gone on strike and wasn't producing red blood cells. When my haemoglobin level dropped, I would get so pale and become very weak, and was in danger of going into heart failure.   

I needed to have blood transfusions ("a can of the best" as Dr Marc called them) to survive. At first, I had a transfusion only once in a while but then it was once a month, and then every two weeks and then every week. But after a while, I became transfusion dependent, and Dr Marc explained that I needed to have a bone marrow transplant - it was my only hope.

That meant finding a donor that had the right DNA match for me so that my body wouldn't reject the new bone marrow. The South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) started to look for a donor. At the time, there were only 70 000 people registered on the local registry - not one of those people was a match so the SABMR searched registries in other countries to see if they could find a match.   

It was at this time that my parents heard Michael Bublé's song, Haven't Met You Yet, and sang it all the time. They said that although it was a song Michael Bublé was singing about the love of his life, they felt that it was about the search for my donor:  

I might have to wait  

I'll never give up 

I guess it's half timing 

And the other half's luck  

Wherever you are  

Whenever it's right 

You'll come out of nowhere and into my life   

I just haven't met you yet...  

I didn't know it at the time, but the SA Bone Marrow Registry was becoming desperate, and they were beginning to lose hope of finding a donor. Although they were losing hope, they refused to give up looking.   

And then one day Magda went with a friend who was joining the bone marrow registry in Germany. While she was there keeping her friend company, Magda thought: "What if there's someone who needs my stem cells?" So, she decided to join the registry too. There was someone 14 000km away who needed her stem cells - that someone was me.   

The transplant was a success and in December 2022, Dr Marc said that my bone marrow was not on strike anymore and he discharged me as his patient.  

Two weeks ago, on 14 March, I celebrated my sixth rebirthday - the anniversary of my bone marrow transplant. It's a celebration for me but it's also a time to pay tribute to all the selfless people who join the registry and give hope to people with cancer and bone marrow failure conditions.   

And today – Saturday, 1 April, I will finally get to meet my genetic twin, Magda, in person and thank her for saving my life.

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