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Gift of life: B.C. man meets U.K. recipient of his life-saving stem cell donation

When Richard Potter received a life-saving stem cell transplant in July 2018, a Canadian flag hung on the wall of his hospital room in England.

At the time, it was one of the few details he knew about the total stranger who had made the donation: that he was from Canada.

“Because we knew that the donor was Canadian, I wanted to sort of make it into (an) inspiring room that’s going to get me through this horrendous and gruelling procedure,” Potter said Thursday from his home in the town of Marple in Greater Manchester.

“We decorated the whole room with all sorts of inspiring posters and cards of well wishes.”

In early 2018, Potter had received devastating news. After surviving leukaemia five years earlier, he was diagnosed with a different form of blood cancer — myelodysplasia — and was told his only hope was a stem cell transplant.

“It’s just hard to take in,” the 56 year-old said, adding that he and his wife had just welcomed their first grandchild the year prior.

“I was quite determined I was going to overcome this purely for our grandchild,” he said.

It turned out, he had a match. Someone who he had never met, living thousands of kilometres away in another country.

New Westminster resident Jordan Knodell remembered getting the call from Canadian Blood Services while he was on vacation in Mexico. Seven years earlier, he had joined the stem cell registry.

“I was sunburned, I was stunned, but I was also extremely inspired,” he said. “I could not have said ‘yes’ faster.”

Knodell began donating blood on a regular basis after he graduated high school in 2010. He said learning about Terry Fox and meeting Fox’s parents at his elementary school in 1999 was a pivotal moment.

“That inspired me so much,” he said. “I thought I could be that person in someone’s life that could make a difference.”

Knodell made his stem cell donation in July 2018.

“The only thing I knew was that my recipient lived in Britain,” he said. “They kept telling me that there is a potential that this person may not make it, but in the back of my mind, I knew. I said, ‘This person’s going to make it.’”

Dr. Matthew Seftel, director of the stem cells program at Canadian Blood Services, said there are almost half a million Canadians who are already part of the registry, and there are sharing agreements with registries across the world.

“For any given person who needs a transplant, they’ve only got about a 25 per cent chance of having a match within their family,” he said. “It really is a very organized and fortunate system that we have that allows Canadians to donate pretty much anywhere and for Canadian patients to receive cells from pretty much anywhere.”

After a required waiting period, Potter and Knodell were able to have their first virtual meeting this summer.

“I can’t tell you how exciting it was to meet a real life hero because that’s what Jordan is to us,” Potter said. “I feel very, very blessed to know him and be a part of his life.”

Knodell said he felt like he knew Potter already.

“When I first saw him on camera, I kind of thought, ‘I’ve known this stranger for years,’ and it felt like meeting an old family member or an old friend from high school,” he said. “My heart was so full.”

Knodell said his gift to Potter also gave him something: inspiration to pursue a nursing career.

“At the time that I donated, I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I didn’t know what my future had in store or even if I had a future … I say thank you to him because in return he gave me the gift of being able to see my future.”

They both hope to meet in person someday, and are encouraging others to consider stem cell donation.

“You, yourself, can be a difference in somebody’s life,” Knodell said. “You just have to put your foot forward, believe in yourself, and to be able to show an act of kindness. That alone is going to make a huge difference, trust me.”

If you’d like to learn more about joining the stem cell registry, visit Canadian Blood Services online.

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