He didn’t give it a second thought when he saw the blood at first. Growing up, Axola May had often experienced nosebleeds – but it quickly became obvious something was wrong. He blacked out, collapsing in a store, and badly bruised his body in the fall.
“I just saw black and felt blood, it was hectic,” Axola says. The 16-year-old from Qonce (formerly King William’s Town) in the Eastern Cape sought treatment for his bruises – but it wasn’t long before his health took a turn for the worse.
Almost overnight the teen, whose hero is Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, went from an active, rugby-playing teen to being confined to his home. His gums had started bleeding, his feet were swollen and he was so exhausted he slept all day.
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Axola was plagued by headaches and even more nosebleeds. When his hands turned pale, his worried aunt, Bomukazi (32), took him to a nearby clinic. They were stunned when doctors said the boy urgently needed a blood transfusion.
Axola was transferred to hospital where he spent the next few weeks being prodded and poked. While doctors tried to figure out what was causing the bleeding, his health continued to deteriorate – he was intubated and had developed lumps all over his body.
When doctors diagnosed severe aplastic anaemia in March, Axola was relieved to finally have a name for his condition.
Aplastic anaemia is a rare condition in which the body stops producing enough blood cells. It’s also known as bone-marrow failure as it develops as a result of bone-marrow damage. The damage may be present at birth or occur after exposure to radiation, chemotherapy, toxic chemicals, some drugs or infection.
In Axola’s case the cause was genetic – and there was more bad news: to save his life, he would need a stem-cell transplant. A blood stem-cell transplant replaces a person’s defective stem cells (bone marrow) with healthy ones.
Family members, especially siblings, are typically the most suitable donors but Axola had lost his mother when he was a toddler, and he had no siblings.
He was raised by Bomukazi and his grandmother, Noshiya May (68), but neither his aunt nor his gran was tested as they were unlikely to be a match.
Axola’s medical team referred him to the local division of DKMS, an international non-profit bone-marrow donor centre that helps find blood stem-cell donors. Sadly, many patients who could benefit from this life-saving procedure do not get the treatment they so desperately need because finding a stem-cell donor with a similar tissue type is no easy task.
“To be a match, donors’ and patients’ tissue characteristics, so-called HLA characteristics, need to match as closely as possible,” says Alana James, DKMS Africa country executive director. “Tissue characteristics are heavily influenced by ethnic background and vary according to genetics and region.”
Still, Axola is confident he’ll find a donor, particularly now he’s shared his plight on social media. He's currently on medication that prevents him from bleeding.
Once a week he goes in for a check-up where doctors check his haemoglobin levels, platelet levels, red blood cell count and white blood cell count.
“I’m positive I will get a donor because people have responded to my post by registering and being tested,” he says. “My hopes are high.”
EXTRA SOURCES: MAYOCLINIC.ORG, MEDICINENET.COM, DKMS-AFRICA.ORG