By Leah Fox
This is the heart-warming moment a pensioner met the mum who saved his life with her anonymous stem cell donation – after travelling 2,300 miles to thank her in person.
Jackie Wray, 50, met with her genetic ‘twin’, Siegfried ‘Siggi’ Wahl, 71, in September after the pair spent more than three years communicating anonymously due to the laws surrounding stem cell donations.
Siggi, from Hattersheim in Germany, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in April 2015 after he had suffered a stroke and doctors found the cancer when he was hospitalised.
After initial treatment proved unsuccessful, doctors told Siggi that his best chance of survival was a blood stem cell donation from a person with identical tissue type.
Unfortunately nobody in his immediate family proved to be a match, so he then had to turn to the worldwide register to find a stranger willing to help.
Luckily, just six months earlier, Siggi’s genetic ‘twin’ Jackie, from, had signed up with blood cancer charity DKMS in 2015 after seeing a TV appeal for a child in urgent need of a donor.
And this moving video captures the moment Siggi met his ‘angel’ Jackie at her restaurant and bar in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire for the first time earlier this year.
Jackie, who owns wedding venue Whinstone View, said: “I signed up to be a stem cell donor four years ago after seeing a BBC News campaign for a two-year-old girl who needed to find a match.
“It was the first time I had ever heard of doing something like that and I thought I could do it, so I googled how to sign up.
“Six months after being on the donor register, doctors had found a match – I knew nothing about him at this stage, just that he was a man in Germany.
“During the process, we both wanted to send cards to each other to check that each of us was alright, and I found out more information about him that way.
“It was a long process so the cards reassured me that Siggi was still alive.”
Jackie said donating her stem cells was like giving blood and lasted around four to five hours.
She had a cannula in one wrist which was connected to a machine and her blood passed through the machine and retrieved the stem cells, then went back into her other arm through a different cannula.
But retired Siggi wasn’t short of challenges throughout his painstaking course of treatment once doctors in the UK had extracted Jackie’s healthy blood stem cells.
To prepare him for the stem cell transfusion, the dad-of-two’s doctors began to administer a strong dose of chemotherapy to destroy his existing blood stem cells, ready to welcome the new ones.
This is a critical stage in the process, and for Siggi it was the point of no return – his body had no defences, and if he did not receive Jackie’s healthy blood stem cells quickly, he was unlikely to survive.
As a courier arrived to escort Jackie’s blood stem cells from London to Frankfurt, news broke of the 2016 terrorist attack in Paris and the courier was unable to leave the UK.
As Siggi’s wife Ursula, 62, sat at his bedside, doctors were worried the blood stem cells would not get to Siggi in time.
Dad-of-two Siggi said: “When they found a match, my wife and I were filled with tears of joy and with a great hope that my life may turn around again.
“The terrorist attack in France that delayed the stem cell courier shocked me and my wife, who was sitting next to my hospital bed with many tears in her eyes.
“My doctor treated me and comforted me, and said ‘We will get there’, so that I wouldn’t worry as much and not give up hope.
“The next day, when the doctor came into my room, and said that the courier was on his way, and I had tears of joy in my eyes.
“Drop by drop, Jackie’s blood stem cells gave me my life back – I can never have enough thanks.”
After Jackie’s stem cells finally arrived in Frankfurt the next day, the transplant immediately went ahead.
Siggi then began a slow process of recovery, as doctors monitored whether his body was accepting the new stem cells.
At one stage, Jackie had to donate extra blood plasma to Siggi in September 2017, where she went through the same process as she did when harvesting the blood stem cells.
The extra donation meant it took them three years before they could finally meet.
This is because UK law states that whilst donors and their patients can communicate following the transplant, it must remain anonymous for at least the first two years.
After this, if both parties are in agreement, their identities can be revealed and they can make arrangements to meet.
The day their anonymity was waived, in February 2019, Siggi rang up Jackie straight away after exchanging email addresses, and after a very emotional conversation, the pair arranged to meet for the first time in the UK.
Jackie invited Siggi and his wife Ursula to stay at the venue she owns in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire where they stayed for three nights.
During the trip, Siggi, who speaks no English, presented Jackie with a silver necklace with a pendant in the shape of an angel, to signify her saving his life.
Jackie said: “Before we met, I had no idea what Siggi looked like or how old he was – it was very difficult when we could only write to each other and I burst into tears every time I read his cards.
“All I knew of Siggi was that he had a son and daughter my age, and a grandson – and he used to play ice hockey when he was a young man which was one of the reasons I was so excited to meet him, to hear his life story.
“When he arrived, there were lots of tears and lots of cuddling – Siggi and his wife had made me a photo album with pictures of him during his treatment which just made me cry instantly.
“They also bought me a little angel necklace because they say I’m his angel and it was just so lovely, I will treasure it forever.
“We had such a fun time, it was just lovely and he never stopped holding my hand.”
Siggi added: “After the many cards we exchanged anonymously, I felt that Jackie has a heart.
“She wanted to save people’s lives, and such a person deserves a personal thank you, with a big hug, and of course with a lot of tears.
“Neither of us could let go when we hugged – for me, she is my angel that saved my life.
“To me, the angel necklace meant Jackie is the angel that heaven sent to me, and saved my life – Jackie is, and will always be my angel.”
Jackie is now calling for others to sign up to become a donor with DKMS to help change people’s lives.
The mum-of-two is planning her second meeting with Siggi in Germany for his birthday in January and is looking forward to meeting the rest of his family.
Jackie added: “My side was easy, it’s like giving blood – Siggi had more struggles and many ups and downs but for me, it only took a few hours of my life and it didn’t hurt at all.
“It’s rare that people find a match and I can’t imagine what it felt like for him once he found out.
“I was his only match and if I hadn’t registered, he would have died.
“I can’t describe how much he’s changed my life – I don’t feel worthy because he’s so grateful, when to me, the process was so easy.
“I’ve given so much with so little effort and didn’t feel ill afterwards, it’s ridiculously simple to do and a good feeling to be able to do.
“It’s wonderful to be on the donor register because giving someone a chance of life someday just blows my mind.”