THE family of a Sheffield schoolboy are appealing for more people to join the lifesaving stem cell register which could save the life of their son.
Fourteen-year-old Harrison Walch, a pupil at Aston Academy, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in April. He has been receiving intensive chemotherapy at Sheffield Children’s Hospital and is currently waiting for a suitable donor.
Several members of staff and pupils at the Sheffield school have joined the register, which involves sending swabs of cells taken from the inside of your mouth to charities the Anthony Nolan Trust or DKMS. They will then analyse the tissue type and add details to the UK stem cell registry in an anonymised form.
Harrison hasn’t been back to Aston Academy since his diagnosis but has stayed in contact via social media and has received a lot of support on his Facebook page.
His Facebook account – Harrison Kicks Leukemia – now has 1.2k followers and celebrities including Scottish singing sensation Lewis Capaldi and SAS: Who Dares Wins star Ant Middleton, have sent him video messages of support. Pupils at Aston Academy have held fundraising events for the Oncology ward at Sheffield Hospital and mum Nickie, a police constable who works for South Yorkshire Police, says she has been overwhelmed by their kindness.
“Harrison’s form teacher, Brett Sutcliffe, has organised lots of fundraising events – they have another one coming up at the end of July,” she said.
“We really appreciate all the love and support which Harrison has been receiving. It’s great that more people are now aware of the stem cell register and we were delighted to hear that students and staff from Aston asked for the Anthony Nolan charity to come into school to do swabs.
“I want to raise awareness of the register and how easy it is to join. You simply go online and register for a pack. Three cotton wool swabs are then sent to you through the post and all you have to do is swab the inside of your mouth and send it back to the laboratory. It’s really that easy.
“The chances of being a match are fairly slim and, if you’re called up to donate, then doctors can take the cells from your blood. Side effects are minimal; you might feel a bit drowsy after donating – but you could save someone’s life.”
Harrison’s journey began back in April.
He went to school as normal on the Monday, complaining of feeling a little tired but nothing too serious. Harrison had a few bruises on his skin but, because he was such as active teenager and regularly played football, Nickie thought little of it.
He’s told his mum he felt a bit tired and had lost his appetite but still this didn’t cause his family any worries.
“Harrison would be playing on his X-Box and I’d shout him for dinner,” recalls Nickie, “he’d tell me that he wasn’t really hungry but, like most mums with teenage boys, I thought it was just because he wanted to spend more time on his X-Box.
“We were coming towards the end of term – he’d been busy at school – and so I thought that he was just ready for a break.
“But these things started to niggle away at me. I typed his symptoms into Google – I know you’re not supposed to do that – and leukemia came out top of the searches. I told my husband, Steve, and he told me not to read too much into it.
“I knew, though, that something wasn’t quite right. I rang the doctors and was told that the next appointment available was in three weeks’ time – or I could come into the surgery and wait for an emergency appointment.
“I chose to wait until I could be seen later that day by one of the GPs and the doctor did a blood test straight away. That could have saved his life. Had we waited until the first available appointment, who knows what might have happened.”
The results showed that Harrison had a high count of white blood cells in his body. He was at risk of a stroke and was sent to Sheffield Children’s Hospital the following day for bone marrow tests and lumbar puncture. Just 24 hours later a diagnosis, on the Wednesday, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia and started chemotherapy shortly after.
“Our world completely changed overnight,” said Nickie.
“Harrison had no obvious symptoms. Nothing was glaringly obvious; he was a happy, healthy teenager who had rarely been ill in his life.
“When you’re told that your son has cancer, you go through a range of emotions from anger to sadness. You say all those clichés to others like why us? What have we done to deserve this? I wish it was me.
“It’s emotional turmoil; there’s no worse feeling as a parent then when your child is ill and you can’t do anything to make them feel better. My child has cancer and there’s nothing I can do other than hope that he pulls through this and to make more people aware of how important signing up to a stem cell register is.”
There is usually a one-in-four chance of a siblings being a suitable match. However, Harrison’s sister, Daisy (17) is only a 50% match. Nickie and her husband Steve are also just a 50% match.
“Harrison has a rare tissue type which is making finding a suitable donor more difficult,” added Nickie, “we’re hoping that there may be someone on the register who is a 90% match and the doctors can make this up to 100% using medical intervention.”
Nickie says that knowing he has so much support is getting the family through this difficult time.
“Social media has been brilliant for Harrison,” she said, “he can still interact with his friends and play games online with them and the support which he’s had on his Facebook page from the likes of Lewis Capaldi, Ant Middleton, footballers from Sheffield United and Doncaster Rovers and Love Island DJ Tom Zanetti has made him smile.
“The whole community have rallied round. Aston Academy split the proceeds from a sponsored walk between the Rotherham Hospice and the oncology ward at Sheffield Children’s Hospital and there is a fun day being organised at the English Institute of Sport on July 28 by my colleagues and friends from across South Yorkshire Police with a 12-hour five-a-side football match and fun run taking place.
“Money raised will go towards improving the ward where Harrison is receiving treatment. The staff at the hospital are amazing but the facilities are not what you would wish for when your child is so sick.
“It’s not a world we’ve been used to or needed to venture into but it has been a real eye-opener for us.
“We’ve had to sleep on a camp bed for the last month and as there’s lots of younger children undergoing difficult treatment, there’s been little rest.
“That’s why these fundraising events are so important; they raise money for a good cause and awareness of the need to join a stem cell register.
“More young donors are urgently needed – boys in particular make good donors – and I’m hoping that Harrison’s story can spread awareness.”
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