As Jo Kelly met her hero for the first time, she struggled to find the words to thank him for the two most precious of gifts.
Stem cell donor Stefan Berens did not just save Jo after she was given only months to live. He also gave her the opportunity to become a mum to baby Phoebe.
So Jo showed her gratitude the only way she could. She embraced Stefan – then introduced him to her beautiful daughter.
Jo, 34, said: “Meeting Stefan was one of the best experiences of my life. It felt like meeting long-lost family. He called me his blood sister, so I knew he felt the same way.
“Introducing him to Phoebe was like showing him the ultimate symbol of my recovery. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be here. I can feel myself getting tearful when I say that.”
Stefan, 32, an economist from Germany, said: “I was very nervous about meeting Jo, but it felt so natural. There was a unique bond between us. Meeting Phoebe was the cherry on top, realising she wouldn’t exist without me. I am so happy for them.”
Jo was just 22 when she was diagnosed with blood cancer Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2007. Despite intensive radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the cancer spread to her lungs and bones.
Three years later, doctors told her the cancer was terminal and she would not live to see Christmas.
Jo had been dating Pete Ames, himself a testicular cancer survivor, for just six months. She said: “A few weeks later, we were painting my room and Pete burst into tears. He said he didn’t want me to leave this world not being his wife.”
Business analyst Pete, now 35, decorated his house with fairy lights and wrote, “I love you” on the walls in 25 different languages to pop the question. The couple then planned their wedding in just eight weeks.
Jo said: “I had an IV drip taped to the underside of my arm, but it was an incredible day.”
Days before the wedding, Jo was given a new drug which stopped the cancer progressing, before another drug sent it into remission. For the first time, Jo was stable enough for a stem-cell transplant.
But blood disease charity Anthony Nolan only found one potential lifesaver with a matching tissue type on the worldwide register. That person was Stefan, who joined the register in his home town of Bielefeld, North West Germany.
Jo said: “We were terrified he might not want to go through with it, but everything fell into place.”
Stefan said: “My question was never, ‘Should I do this?’. It was, ‘How do I help?’.”
Stefan made the 360-mile round trip from Hamburg, where he was an intern, to a clinic in Berlin to donate. Jo had her transplant in 2012, but the chemo she needed to kill off her immune system before she received Stefan’s cells left her so weak she nearly died.
She said: “There was one night where I hit rock bottom. I knew if I chose, I could pass away quietly. But I had to keep trying for Pete and my parents.”
Jo slowly recovered and wrote a thank you letter to Stefan shortly after the life-saving transplant.
She never received Stefan’s reply and believes it was delivered to an old address.
Their incredible story might have ended there. But nearly two years ago Jo, who was left infertile by the chemotherapy before her transplant, tried for a baby with husband Pete via IVF.
An embryo made using Pete’s sperm and a donor egg was implanted in Jo’s womb. Phoebe was born in March last year and celebrated her first birthday last Thursday.
Jo, a data engineer from Lichfield, Staffs, said: “I still marvel at the fact this little soul wasn’t really meant to exist, yet she is so special.
“Having Phoebe felt like such a big moment, I had to try to tell my donor. I’m so glad I did.”
Stefan agreed. “It was a little bit heartbreaking to find out that Jo didn’t receive my first letter. I’m so pleased she wrote again.” Jo also developed a new passion for running, which she shares with Stefan. She completed the London Marathon on her 33rd birthday in 2018.
When Jo met Stefan in Manchester, she presented him with her marathon medal to thank him for everything. Jo said: “It belongs to Stefan as much as me, I wouldn’t have it without him.
“We joked that he gave me his love of running along with his stem cells.”
And she added: “Meeting Stefan feels like a fitting conclusion to a huge chapter of my life. I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope I can keep in touch with my blood brother.”
- To join the stem cell donor register or donate to Anthony Nolan, visit anthonynolan.org
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