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Volunteer courier of bone marrow: I'm holding someone's life in my hands

The New Paper | Judith Tan | Tuesday, Jun 7, 2016

Mr Roger Prior is a volunteer courier with the Singapore Bone Marrow Donor Programme.

Photo: ROGER PRIOR

When it comes to delivering bone marrow from anywhere in the world to a waiting patient, failure is not an option for volunteer courier Roger Prior.

On one occasion, Mr Prior was scheduled to fly on Singapore Airlines from Houston, Texas, with stem cells crucial to someone here.

Suddenly, lightning struck the control tower and knocked it out. The airport was shut down temporarily so that emergency facilities could be set up.

"We departed three hours later, which meant our flight was due to land in San Francisco minutes after the connecting flight to Singapore was to have taken off. I spoke to the cabin crew about the importance of my cargo and one of them informed the captain. It seemed he stepped on the gas," he said.

Mr Prior was received by a Singapore Airlines representative in San Francisco, who raced him across the terminal to a waiting plane with 400 passengers already strapped in.

The stem cells got to the patient in time.

"I am holding someone's life in my hands," Mr Prior, an Australian in his 70s, told The New Paper.

He would know.

His eldest son Daniel was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1996 and needed a transplant.

The Singapore Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) was very new then and the registry was mainly set up to meet the needs of the Singapore population.

His son, then aged 11 and a Singapore-born child of an Australian father and a British mother, could not find a local match.

"The registry played a vital role in the global search," said Mr Prior, who has been a permanent resident here since the 1980s and runs his own executive search firm, Roger Prior Associates.

"I still remember how vulnerable and on-edge everybody felt waiting for the precious hand-carried cargo of bone marrow to arrive from Australia."

HELP

So when the BMDP needed to establish an international courier service in 1995 to support the growing number of overseas donors, the grateful Mr Prior helped out.

The BMDP said volunteer couriers can make up to several trips within a year. Mr Prior never really experienced any language problems "although sometimes I used my few words of Mandarin, German and often a lot of hand gestures to get by".

His flights and accommodation are usually paid for by the patients once a match has been found, said BMDP president Jane Prior.

"But the search for a match is done free. We also reimburse Roger's expenses abroad," she added.

Mr Prior has made more than 100 trips and travelled all over the world as a BMDP courier to bring stem cells back to those in need in Singapore and neighbouring countries, collecting products from the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

"The BMDP used to be a one-man organisation and did not have any resources," he said. "The transplant doctors were also acting as the couriers.

"From our own family experience, I believed their time was better spent doing what they are best at, which is looking after their patients."

Donor's card kept his hopes up

All the card said was "Xi wang ni kang fu" ("Hope you recover" in Mandarin).

It was a simple message brought all the way from Taiwan but it kept Mr Simon Tan, 54, going.

"It was from my bone marrow donor and it accompanied the stem cell more than 3,000km to save my life," said the vice-president of corporate governance at Li & Fung, a consumer goods design, development, sourcing and logistics company headquartered in Hong Kong.

Mr Tan had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), a fast-growing cancer of a type of white blood cells that crowds out the bone marrow, preventing it from making normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that the body needs.

He only found out in November 2011 when he went to have his appendix taken out. Before that, he had never been sick.

"I had been flying here and there for work. I ate normally and looked perfectly healthy," the divorcee told The New Paper.

It was only when he flew back from a trip to Hong Kong that year that an "unbearable" pain in his abdomen forced him to make a trip to the hospital straight from the airport.

That was when doctors told him he had ALL.

"About 97 per cent of my blood had been compromised by white blood cells," he said.

After surgery, he was kept in an isolated room with no visitors allowed.

"That was the hardest part for me, especially when it was over the festive period. But luckily I had my mobile phone with me. It was my only link with the rest of the world," he said.

Mr Tan was given three options by his doctor: chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant or not do anything and just succumb.

"As someone who assesses risks, I did my own assessment and picked the obvious one - option two. That started the ball rolling to search for a potential donor," he said.

It was in February 2012 when the Taiwanese woman donor was found.

TREATMENT

He said: "I had to die first before I could live. My immune system and marrow were blasted and killed. Then the stem cells were transplanted in me."

It took just 45 minutes for the bone marrow stem cells to be successfully transplanted into Mr Tan.

"The stem cells took less than 14 days to replicate, what doctors called an Olympic Gold," he said, but Mr Tan did not get to "keep that medal for long".

Four months after the transplant, he developed Stage 4 lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes. He had to fight again and fortunately, he won that battle too, with the help of strong antibiotics.

Today, Mr Tan is cured of his cancer and has gained some weight after dropping 20kg from 90kg.

"My hope now is to meet my donor and say thank you. I hope I will be able to pay it forward," he said.

DONATE & HELP SAVE LIVES

The Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) is a charity responsible for building and managing Singapore's only register of volunteer bone marrow donors.

Established in 1993, it provides a 365-day service to the hospitals to search the local and overseas registers to find a matching donor for their patients.

There are 62,000 currently on the Singapore list.

Since there is just a one in 20,000 chance of finding a matching donor, BMDP hopes to recruit 50,000 new donors in the next three years.

BMDP is a member of the World Marrow Donor Association.

Wanting people to see how unrelated blood stem cell donations are saving lives in a very real way all over the world, its president from 2013 to 2014, Associate Professor William Hwang, penned a book entitled Sharing Life to document personal stories of patients, donors and even couriers.

Professor Hwang, who is also head of the department of haematology at the Singapore General Hospital, said the book "gives readers a behind-the-scene glimpse of how individuals and organisations with a common vision come together, cross boundaries of nationality, ethnicity and geography to make a real difference to the life of another through the exchange of stem cells".

The book is available for sale at US$19.90 (S$27) on Amazon.com and Armour Publishing.


This article was first published on June 7, 2016.
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