Yes, I only have one wife and, yes, last month we celebrated 45 years of marriage.
Gill’s real birthday is in June, two days before mine, she was born almost exactly a year after me.
1 February is celebrated by us every year as it marks the day, 19 years ago today now, that she underwent an autologous bone marrow transplant using her own stem cells which had been ‘harvested’ the previous September.
In June 1995, Gill was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the blood similar to Leukaemia. Fortunately for many Leukaemia patients these days, there is a cure; MM does not yet have that.
Those dark days of 1995 are almost a blur now as Gill went to the University Hospital of Wales to undergo several cycles of chemotherapy. Gill’s parents were great, coming to Hereford several times to keep things going on the home front while I was at work and shuttling to and from Cardiff.
Chemotherapy is rarely enjoyable, with its usual side-effects. After losing her hair, Gill took to wearing one of two wigs, including the one which was her bad mood wig. As a family, we decided to look on the bright side of life and to exercise a sense of humour where possible. So when Gill dropped something and went into angry/frustration mode, younger son Tim would say, “Keep your hair on, Mum!”
After Christmas 1995, we saw the Prof who headed up the Haematology Department. He said it was time to go the next and hopefully final stage.
On 30 January 1996, Gill entered the Transplant Unit (visitors as well as patients had to wear gowns, caps and slippers) and was given a massive dose of chemotherapy which destroyed her immune system.
1 February 1996, Gill received her own bone marrow back, it had been spun off over 8 hours in September 1995.
The next six weeks were anxious ones as we watched the daily results for her blood count creep up back to normal levels. There were one or two worrying hitches, but in mid-March I took Gill back home to Hereford and carried her upstairs to our bedroom.
Slowly her strength returned until by June she was allowed to let Tigger, our beloved cat, sit on her lap again.
Fast forwarding, Gill is still in remission and is the longest living bone marrow transplant patient from Herefordshire, and maybe beyond. This has allowed her to be a wonderful grandmother to Sophie, Alice and Harry, THEY are so lucky in that respect.
So we have always ‘celebrated’ this day as Gill’s ‘other’ birthday. Due to my peripatetic work, we have celebrated it in a walk in the cold February mist on the Malvern Hills, at a restaurant at the Portal de Los Angeles overlooking Guatemala City, swimming in a pool fed by a underground volcanic stream (no chemicals, but a whiff of sulphur etc) at a lake in Guatemala, and at another restaurant in the Old City of Damascus (just before the unrest there got a bit more sinister in 2011).
Later today we will have a braai (Saffer word for BBQ, barbie) here on Mutungo Hill, Kampala overlooking Lake Victoria and celebrate again under a cloudless sky with trees and bird life around us. Before that we will have a swim.
I hope anyone who is suffering under a similar regime, or has a relative doing so, will draw some hope from Gill’s experience. Every transplant patient is unique, others will hopefully take comfort as the biochemical technology gets better and better.
Stay and live strong.