‘My sister’s stem cells travelled 3,000 miles and saved my life’
Now Ellissa is cycling the equivalent distance from her home in Leeds to her sister’s home in Israel to raise money for blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan. She has already raised an impressive £10,000.
It was Christmas last year that Ellissa, 42, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia after experiencing persistent back pain.
“As an IVF consultant I often have to get myself into awkward positions operating and performing scans, so back pain has always been an occupational hazard,” says the mum of two. “The pain got progressively worse over six weeks and was particularity painful at the staff Christmas party last year.
“The following day I saw a spinal consultant. I just wanted pain relief, but he decided to do an x-ray and also some blood tests. It had not crossed my mind that my back pain was the result of a cancer.”
Later that day, while Christmas shopping, Ellissa received a phone call from the haematology department. They asked her to come to the hospital straight away. Her first concern her own patients who she was operating on the next day and was quickly told they would need to be cancelled. She knew at this point that she was going to be given a serious diagnosis.
Ellissa arrived at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, the hospital where she works, accompanied by her husband who is also a doctor, a psychiatrist, where she was given the devastating news that she had leukaemia.
“As soon as I arrived, I knew I was being sent to the haematology oncology ward. After the registrar told me I had leukaemia, my first thoughts were ‘what do I tell my kids and family and how long is the treatment going to take and how long will it be until I can get back to normal and back to work?’
“I was allowed to go home, where I had to tell my two teenage children, which is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I clung on to the haematologist’s words that there is a good hope of cure.”
Ellissa returned to hospital, where she would stay for six weeks while she had intense chemotherapy. During her stay, she was offered the use of an exercise bike.
After a short stay at home, Ellissa had a further course of chemotherapy and continued cycling throughout.
“Going on the bike gave my day a focus, so when I came home, I carried on with the cycling and found myself getting fitter and healthier despite the high dose chemotherapy.
“Looking back, the hardest thing was the uncertainty. Each week whilst at home, my husband took a blood test and these were ferried to the hospital by an army of my work colleagues. Even if I felt absolutely brilliant this was no reflection on the blood results. This was compounded by the evolving pandemic. By early March, not only did I have to worry about the AML, I was also extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 and my new found freedom after leaving my hospital isolation room was short lived as I remained quarantined in my own home”.
In late March, Ellissa received the devastating news that the chemotherapy hadn’t worked, and she would need a stem cell transplant if she was going to be cured.
“March was a really difficult month, my mother-in-law tragically died from Covid-19, and in that same week I was told that I would need a stem cell transplant,” recalls Ellissa.
“Unfortunately my prognosis was no longer as positive. But I knew I was young, fit and otherwise healthy and most importantly had a full match donor lined up so I remained optimistic.
“I had another round of chemotherapy, using a new drug that had not been previously used in my circumstances. I was fortunate that I could have this treatment at home, and my husband continued to be a fantastic phlebotomist and my work colleagues tirelessly helped with the transport of samples and medication.”
Just one in four transplant recipients find a matching donor within their family; the rest will rely on Anthony Nolan to find them a matching donor. Ellissa’s two sisters were tested to see if they were a match and her older sister, Tanya, who lives in Israel was a match.
“We didn’t know how she was going to donate as Israel’s borders were closed due to Covid-19. One of my oncology colleagues suggested she could donate her stem cells in Israel.
“My sister called up the stem cell register in Israel and asked them if they could help. They arranged for her to donate her stem cells at the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry donation centre and arranged for a courier from Anthony Nolan to collect the cells and bring them to Leeds where I was in hospital.”
Ellissa had her transplant on July 23 and on the same day she started her cycling challenge.
She remained in hospital for five weeks following her transplant before isolating at home, where she continues to cycle and is now completing around ten miles a day.
“Being a patient in the hospital where I work has been eye-opening. When you’re a doctor you never stop being a doctor. When I was in hospital the very first time, I was still in doctor mode and I couldn’t help but respond to the sounds on the ward,” says Ellissa who hopes to return to work as soon as possible. “I really hope that this experience will give me more compassion and empathy when I am seeing my own patients.”
Anthony Nolan finds matching donors for people with blood cancer who need a stem cell transplant – and gives them a second chance of life.
They also carry out ground-breaking research to save more lives and provide information and support to patients after a stem cell transplant, through its clinical nurse specialists and psychologists, who help guide patients through their recovery.
Kirsty Mooney, Head of Supporter-Led Fundraising at Anthony Nolan, said: “Ellissa is saving lives with every mile she cycles. The £10,000 that she has already raised will enable us to recruit over 250 potential stem cell donors to join the Anthony Nolan register.”