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Thursday 13 January 2022

Katie meets the stem cell donor who saved her life

For three years Katie Minton owed her life to a stranger after undergoing a life-saving stem cell transplant as she battled leukaemia.

The procedure was the best hope of a cure for the teenager whose cancer had returned for a second time within only 12 months.

But little did she know that it was a transatlantic match that made the operation possible at University Hospital Southampton – until she recently got the chance to find the woman who saved her life and discovered she lives 5,000 miles away in San Francisco.

After making contact via the Anthony Nolan Trust asking for help in tracing her donor, it was a matter of weeks before Katie received a letter from Valerie Rodriguez, 33, who lives in California.

Now they’ve met and formed a rare and special friendship that will never be broken.

I was so overwhelmed with emotions to find out who my donor was and was so grateful they had made the effort to write to me.

The pair began emailing and made contact on social media and in September last year they finally met in person after Valerie and her mum, Kim, flew to London to meet Katie. The new found friends spent three days getting to know each other and sightseeing.

Katie said: “It’s been an amazing experience. We bonded straight away and chat frequently and with ease, as if we’ve known each other for years.” 

“I’m so grateful to Valerie. Without her match I’m not sure what position I’d be in now.  

“Meeting both her and her mum has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life and they are both very special to me.”

Katie, from Worthing, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in May 2017, at the age of 17 and was referred to University Hospital Southampton for treatment. 

She underwent six months of gruelling chemotherapy and although Katie initially responded well and went into remission, in May 2018 she relapsed.

Her medical team at UHS advised that her best option was further chemotherapy, total body irradiation and a stem cell transplant. 

Katie said: “Since my original diagnosis I always insisted I’d never have a transplant, out of fear and anxiety. However, when you’re put in the situation like I was in you do whatever it takes and you become stronger than you ever thought you could be.” 

Katie’s allogenic stem cell transplant took place three months after she relapsed, in August 2018.

She said: “The transplant experience is a scary one, lots of daunting conversations and frightening facts but my best advice to anyone going through something similar is to take each day at a time.

“I found the whole idea of isolating in one room so scary, the thought of not being able to go outside doing the things I loved was heart-breaking but I looked at the bigger picture and realised I was doing this to allow myself to have a future.” 

I couldn’t have made it through those early days without the amazing support from the transplant team in Southampton. 

“If I was feeling scared or low they were there immediately to help calm me and alleviate my fears. 

“They were like a second family to me while I was in hospital - and still are.” 

Katie, who lives with her father Geoff and brother Ryan, said her family were her rock during this rollercoaster period in her life. 

She said: “My family were the greatest support to me - they were there no matter what. 

“Even if I wasn’t up to talking just the thought of them being there for me was enough to keep me company and stop me from feeling lonely. 

“Video calls were another way I stayed connected to the outside world which was so important to me.” 

It took 16 months of recovery before Katie started to feel like she was turning a corner.

She said: “When I came out after my transplant, I was a bit naive as to how long recovery would take - it’s a slow process but I was finally starting to get my life back.

“Being able to go back out doing things with friends and family was the most magical feeling and was worth every second of the transplant process.” 

But then the pandemic hit and life changed for Katie once again. 

“I know the pandemic has affected so many people but, at that time, I found it really hard as returning to normal for me seemed like it had been interrupted,” she said. 

“But I got my head around this new way of life eventually and even managed to pass my driving test in August 2019.” 

She also started a new job as a medical receptionist at a GP surgery.

Katie’s post-transplant care has been ongoing throughout the pandemic. She now has check-up appointments every three months. She remains in remission, has now fully recovered from the transplant and she is back doing the things she enjoys most - seeing friends and going to concerts. 

Katie said: “I feel so lucky to have been treated in Southampton and can see why they have the best outcomes. It is obvious how much they care for their patients, not just on a medical level but on a personal level too. 

“They are absolutely incredible and saved my life – for that I will be forever grateful.”