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Sunflower Fund Calls For Stem Cell Donors

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Your selfless act could save a life and it’s not as difficult as you may think

“Do not hesitate to become a stem cell donor. Just do it. You will not be alone on this journey and there is no need to be scared. You can be someone’s hero.” Leonie Venter, stem cell donor.

Hundreds of South Africans of all ages and races are diagnosed with diseases such as leukaemia, aplastic anaemia or some rare genetic disorders. In some instances, their only hope of survival is a blood stem cell transplant from a donor who shares the same tissue type. Their chances of finding a match are about one in 100 000.

With the Sunflower Fund partnered by DKMS’s annual Sunflower Day campaign drawing to a close, South Africans are urged to register as donors and help save lives. 

The misconceptions around the donation process discourage many people from taking this life-saving step. Fortunately, there are people who have registered as donors and are willing to share their stories, such as Port Elizabeth resident  Leonie Venter.

When Venter registered as a donor with The Sunflower Fund in February 2018, she was excited at the prospect of possibly being a match for someone. “My donating journey started in September 2019 when I received a call to say I might be a possible match for someone. I was shaking with excitement that I might be able to afford someone else a new chance at life.”

On agreeing to the process, Venter received various documents from The Sunflower Fund describing the entire process and explaining what would be expected from her as a donor. She also had to discuss her decision with her family members and familiarise them with the process as their support is critical. 

“The Sunflower Fund then arranged for me to undergo a few blood tests and a general health check-up, which did not cost me a cent. I just had to arrive for the appointments. Throughout the entire process, the Sunflower team checked on me to make sure I was still okay with my decision and reassured me I would not be going through it alone. Their support, love, gratefulness and effort to make everything as smooth as possible was incredibly comforting,” says Venter.

On 24 October 2019, Venter travelled from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town to donate stem cells which are extracted from her blood. She was welcomed with such warmth and friendliness that any nervousness she had dissipated completely.

Venter says the actual process of donating was handled seamlessly. “Before the donation, I was taken to the hospital ward to meet the medical staff who would oversee the donation and take care of me. They explained the entire process to me and showed me how the machine works, allowing me to ask as many questions as I needed.”

She says the actual harvesting of the stem cells, which was conducted by professional medical staff in a caring and friendly manner, was not painful. “The only discomfort involved was having to lie on my back for a few hours. This is nothing compared to what patients fighting blood diseases have to go through.”

Venter’s decision to donate is a highly personal one. “On 23 October 2014, our little girl got her angel wings after a two-year battle with cancer. I know what it feels like if you have to hear that medically there is nothing else that can be done. I am profoundly aware of the pain and suffering this illness can cause. If I can bring hope to someone else, why not? It does not cost me anything, but it does give me a sense of purpose and belonging.”

She urges South Africans to donate. “There is nothing more excruciating than watching a loved one deteriorate before your eyes. You feel so helpless and just pray and wish that a miracle will show up. The act of donating may seem like something small or you may think this will not happen to you and your family. I really do not wish this on anyone, but I do wish that people would be more aware of the power they hold to help others. An unselfish act could mean the world to someone else and a second chance on life. And the feeling you get, knowing that you made a difference, is priceless!”

Media personality, Shahan Ramkissoon, who has signed up as a donor, says the first step to becoming a donor was one of the easiest things she’s ever done. “I did the swab test, which was mailed to me and collected. It’s incredible to think that such a simple process could ultimately help me to help save a life. I encourage everyone to assist the Sunflower Fund and, ultimately, those people in need.”

Sunflower Fund CEO Alana James says the many misapprehensions around blood disorders and stem cell donations are a major challenge for the organisation, making it so much more difficult to secure the much-needed donors. “There tends to be confusion between blood donation, organ donation and stem cell donation. These are completely different databases. There are also many cultural and religious uncertainties that people think are cause for them not to register.”

Venter has no regrets about donating her stem cells. “I feel great. It almost feels unreal that I donated stem cells a year ago. Would I do it again? Absolutely yes, without thinking twice!” she concludes.

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