A mum-of-three and the hospital chaplain she befriended when she received a bone marrow transplant two years ago have enjoyed a tearful reunion – after discovering he was the donor who saved her life.
Clergyman Mario Sant, 39, is one of two hospital chaplains stationed in London as part of a joint venture by the Maltese government and the Catholic Church to support patients sent to the UK for procedures which cannot be performed on the tiny island.
Taking the position six years ago, Maltese national Mario was moved by the plight of a five-year-old boy who needed the same transplant at the famous Great Ormond Street Hospital in 2018 to become a bone marrow donor.
Sadly, he was too late to help the boy, who died a few months later, but he joined the international database DKMS as a bone marrow donor in December 2018.
In the meantime, he met leukaemia patient Agnes Vella, 59, a mum of three from Malta, in March 2019, who needed stem cells from bone marrow to stop her cancer from returning and they bonded, according to Mario, who said: “We got on immediately.
“She was at the Royal Marsden in London, and we joked that I could be her donor, as I was called to donate as she arrived.”
He added: “But her records said the donor was English and I was born in Malta, so we didn’t think it was me.
“Plus, I donated at a different hospital, so it just didn’t fit. I think we both hoped and joked about it, but we thought it wasn’t possible.”
Neither Mario nor Agnes, a housewife, whose husband Francis, 65, is a retired freight worker, gave it a second thought – although their friendship blossomed, and they stayed in touch.
Then, in May 2020, when she felt compelled to thank the donor who had saved her life – emailing the DKMS asking if she could contact the stranger that helped her – she and Mario were in for a gigantic surprise.
Records revealed that Agnes’ guardian angel was in fact the hospital chaplain who had become her friend.
“It was amazing to discover that I was Agnes’ donor,” said Mario.
He added: “The work I do is very special. We are there for people during their joy and sadness.
“When Agnes called saying she had asked for the details to be released and I got the email instantly asking if I wanted to give the woman I donated to my details, it all added up.
“It was amazing, from that moment we knew I was her donor. We just couldn’t believe that we had unwittingly shared such a special journey together.”
Meanwhile, Mario, who has been living in London and supporting Maltese patients for six years, says the amazing news is a poignant reminder of the little boy who inspired him to donate.
He said: “Sadly, he had leukaemia and he didn’t make it, but it’s all thanks to this child that I donated.
“I spent a lot of time with him and his family at Great Ormond Street.”
He added: “He was so brave. He needed another bone marrow transplant, but they were struggling to find a match.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I donate?’ So, I registered, but I didn’t realise it can take nine to 10 months to become a bone marrow donor.
“I couldn’t help the child, but I could help others.”
And, three months after signing up to DKMS, an international non-profit bone marrow donor centre, he was called to donate.
He said: “Over that time, I continued working and helping other patients and that’s how I met Agnes.
“I love my job. London is one of the nicest cities I’ve lived in and the work I do is very special.”
90% of stem cell cases are taken from the bloodstream
At any one time there are around 2,000 people in the UK in need of a blood stem cell transplant
By January 2021 two million people had registered to be blood stem cell donors in the UK
He added: “Maltese patients come over for treatment and so, as a religious state, the government provides two chaplains to help them through their treatment.
“For a lot of patients we’re the only ‘family’ they have during some dark times, so it’s really special to be part of it.”
For Agnes, who was in remission from leukaemia after previously surviving two bouts of breast cancer, the bone marrow transplant was essential to stop her disease from returning within a year.
And Mario, who donated his own stem cells at London’s King’s College Hospital the day before her op, was there to hold her hand as she was prepared for the procedure at the Royal Marsden.
The transplant was a success and four months later, Agnes returned home to Malta.
But the friends stayed in touch, chatting by phone every week.
And when they discovered he was her donor, their thoughts immediately went to arranging a reunion as soon as Covid travel restrictions allowed it.
So, on July 31, they finally got to have the hug of a lifetime, when they met for the first time since her transplant, at Agnes’ home in Malta.
“I was so excited to see Agnes,” said Mario.
“We hadn’t been able to meet since we found out because of the pandemic. We chat all the time, but we wanted to meet in person.
“We laugh that we must be related now, because I was a match. It’s crazy to think that in an international database two people from such a small island could be a match.
“I’m just so grateful she’s healthy.”
While Agnes was ecstatic to meet up with not just her friend, but the donor who saved her life.
She said: “I met Mario when I went to London for treatment. We met every day. He would even come by at weekends and we would have dinner together or a little party with the other patients.
“It was really special. We became like a little family.”
She added: “The staff at the Royal Marsden and at the Sir Anthony Mamo oncology centre, where I was on the haematology ward, in Malta took such good care of me, too – I’m so grateful to them.
“When I arrived in London, Mario told me he had been called to donate. But we never thought it would be for me. I was told my donor was English, and though Mario lives in England, he’s Maltese, so we felt sure it couldn’t be him.”
And she is keen for the lifesaving DKMS register, which also operates in Germany, India, Chile, Poland, Africa and the United States to operate in Malta too.
She said: “My family wanted to register but they can’t as they don’t have UK addresses – that was why Mario was able to donate.
“He saved my life, I’m so thankful to him.”
MUST PAR: Taking the first steps to register as a potential blood stem cell donor can be done from the comfort of your own home. If you are aged between 17-55 and in good health you can sign up for a home swab kit online at https://www.dkms.org.uk/register-now. Your swabs can then be returned with the enclosed pre-paid envelope to DKMS in order to ensure that your details are added to the UK’s aligned stem cell register.