Travelling the world to save lives

Travelling the world to save lives

Photograph © Nick Strugnell UNP

At a moment’s notice Glenn Abbassi could find herself travelling to a distant part of the planet. The list of countries she has visited would lead anyone to believe she’s an avid traveller who enjoys holidaying abroad. But trips to places such as Hong Kong and Australia do not involve sight-seeing or sitting in the sun. Instead every journey Glenn embarks on is to help someone who is desperately ill, and could make the difference between life and death.

Retired stockbroker Glenn (71), is a volunteer courier for Anthony Nolan, the charity that matches individuals willing to donate their blood stem cells (also known as bone marrow) to people with blood cancer and blood disorders who need life-saving transplants. In the last eight years she’s been on more than 260 trips to 30 countries, transporting vital stem cells back to the UK. She even spent last Christmas away from her family, in Beijing. But the selfless step-mum of two wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Once someone has donated, the cells need to reach their recipient within 72 hours and it’s my responsibility to make that happen’

Glenn says: “Being a courier for Anthony Nolan is very worthwhile. Every trip is of equal importance, because the stem cells are being transported in order to save lives. Once someone has donated, the cells need to reach their recipient within 72 hours and it’s my responsibility to make that happen.”

Since the launch of their register 40 years ago, the Anthony Nolan charity has made thousands of stem cell transplants possible. Now there aremore than 500,000 donors on their register – all giving hope to those in need of a transplant. “It’s great to know that as a courier I’m contributing towards the charity’s work,” says Glenn. “It’s about helping people to survive.”

Glenn, who lives in Hadleigh, close to Ipswich, decided to become a courier in 2006 after the charity placed an advert in a magazine. “I was retired, so I thought it was something I could do to help others,” she says. But there were also two personal reasons for her signing up.

“My first husband, Peter, was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia and died aged 43, while I met my current husband, Eddie, a few years later when he flew to Britain from his homeland in Iran to donate bone marrow to his brother. There was a link between the work that Anthony Nolan does and my own life experiences so I wanted to support them.”

Once Glenn had been accepted as a courier, she began transporting stem cells. At first the trips involved her travelling between various hospitals in Britain, then in 2007 she was asked to collect cells from Mannheim in Germany. “I was a little nervous,” she recalls. “The charity book the flights and also a hotel if a trip involves an overnight stay. But couriers have to make their own way between the airport and hospital to collect the cells, so I had to work out my route. I was fine though and don’t think twice now about going anywhere – even if it’s at short notice. People were suprised that I chose to spend last Christmas away from home in China, but I was back on Boxing Day, and why wouldn’t I help another family?

“Once the stem cells are in my possession I transport them in a box, and don’t let them out of my sight. Because they need to reach their recipient within 72 hours I always hope there won’t be delays when travelling back from outside Europe. So far I’ve always got back in time. Couriers don’t receive details about the person they are collecting for, or whether their transplant was successful. All we can do is hope that our work saves a life.”

Looking ahead to her own future, Glenn plans to continue as a courier, but says she will stop at 300 trips. “I think that will be a good time to finish,” she says. “I’ve been on more than 35 trips this year, so by next September I will probably reach 300. The whole process has been fascinating and a great thing to be involved with.

“For me it hasn’t been about travelling, but about supporting a great charity and helping save lives. It will be good to look back and know that I played a part in making
that possible.”


The Anthony Nolan charity…

For many blood cancer sufferers, a stem cell transplant is their only chance of survival –  if they can find a matching donor. In 1974, Anthony Nolan had a rare blood disorder and would only survive with a stem cell donation from a stranger. At that time there was no way to find unrelated donors, so Anthony’s mum, Shirley, set up the world’s first register.

Sadly, Anthony died before a donor was found. But 40 years on, the charity is saving lives by matching people willing to donate their stem cells to blood cancer patients.
The charity relies on supporters, donors, fundraisers and volunteers to help them find a match for three people a day. It costs £100 to add each new donor to the register, so the more money raised, the more lives can be saved.

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