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The life-enhancing act of donating bone marrow

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When Ashleigh Gleeson was 23 years old, living a frenetic life of social engagements and crazy hours working in radio promotion, she ticked a box that would change her life, and the life of a complete stranger 12 years down the track.

The box she ticked was during a routine blood donation when Ashleigh agreed to be a potential bone marrow donor if ever someone was matched to her.

“I just went on the list. Nothing happened and nobody called me, but I just thought it was special to make the offer if someone else needed help.”

And she literally thought nothing more of it.

Cut to last year, and Ashleigh received a phone call in May which would change her life—and may well have saved the life of another.

“It was completely unexpected. I got a call asking for Ashleigh Hudson, living in Kingston. Well, I am no longer Ashleigh Hudson and I no longer live in Kingston so it took me a second to register.”

In the intervening 12 years, Ashleigh got married to her husband Joe, started her own event management business Damsel and Sprout and produced three beautiful children Rylan, 7, Finley, 5, and Darcy 3.

While she was still committed to the idea of donating bone marrow to someone in need, Ashleigh’s life was no longer entirely her own.

“Suddenly the idea of making such a huge commitment meant it would impact on more people than just me—it would mean juggling for my family and my work colleagues. So my initial reaction was shock and a little bit of panic to be honest.”

But as the blood donor coordinator explained the process to her and the impact it would have for around two weeks of her life, Ashleigh considered the big picture.

“I had matched with someone. So while it would mean two weeks of disruption to my life, I could actually play a role in saving someone’s life. I mean, you don’t get to needing a bone marrow transplant as a first choice of treatment. You have to endure a lot of sickness, or you suddenly find yourself gravely ill, and there must be so much fear about what your future will bring. To be in that position to help, well it was actually an honour. And so I said yes.”

The wheels of the donation moved pretty quickly after that and Ashleigh said the support of her family, Joe, her Damsel and Sprout team, her friends and her kids buoyed her through the schedule of twice-daily injections into her stomach over a week to stimulate her stem cells.

Her eldest Rylan proudly told her school what mummy was doing. “She said I was trying to help save someone’s life.”

Rylan, Finley and Darcy.

Her own mum Fiona said she was not surprised Ashleigh answered the call.

But she had concerns about her daughter.

“I must admit I was a little worried as Ashleigh had her own family, husband and new and growing business. But knowing Ashleigh’s personality, drive and determination, I knew she would definitely go through with it,” Fiona said.

“Ashleigh is an extremely kind and caring person and I think as a mother she was putting herself in the other person’s position and she didn’t hesitate to help. I cannot tell you how proud Michael and I are of Ashleigh. She was very brave.”

The side effects weren’t awful, but Ashleigh did suffer aching bones as her bone marrow overproduced stem cells.

“By the end of the week it felt like I had a pretty decent cold coming on, but the staff were so amazing and so supportive and explained that those aches and pains meant my body was actually doing what it was supposed to do.”

Ashleigh with husband Joe.

Then it was time to travel to Sydney for the procedure at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

With Joe by her side, Ashleigh was hooked up to a machine that filtered the precious stem cells out of her bloodstream before returning her blood to her body.

“I think the machine circulated my blood twice. It took about four and half hours. I was hooked up and couldn’t really move during the procedure. My arm hurt a bit and I was pretty tired at the end of it, but that was definitely the worst of it.”

Yet for Ashleigh, the procedure was a far better process than previous donation methods involving large needles and going under anaesthetic.

Mostly, she recalls the overwhelming emotions she experienced during that time. And hugging her children with all her strength when she got home.

“They say they try and match you up with someone of the same age, so in my mind, I was just wondering if I was helping another mum, and what that could mean for her and her children,” Ashleigh said as the tears spill from her eyes.

“I just remember being so invested in someone I didn’t know and feeling this intense connection to them.”

Privacy restrictions mean there is little information exchange during a bone marrow transplant, but Ashleigh is aware her donation went to a woman and that three months after the donation took place she was doing well.

“I just remember counting down the days until I could hear news of how it went and I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of relief and happiness and I just phoned my husband and I couldn’t speak for the tears.”

And that happiness results in more tears as Ashleigh considers the impact she has had.

“It’s funny but I think if they had called me at 23, there might have been more chance I would have maybe backed out of it. Being a mum now makes me acutely aware of the importance of good health and family and to be able to try and help someone else in their absolute time of need has been a gift for me. It was scary at times, and I never set out to be a hero, I just wanted to help another person if I was in the unique position of being able to help.

“I am a mum. I am not a doctor or a nurse or frontline worker, and I am not even as active on the P&C as I would like to be. But this was my chance to make a difference.”

Two years from the date of the donation Ashleigh will be able to contact her transplant recipient if the recipient is open to being contacted.

“Oh my goodness I would love to meet them. And hug them. And make sure they are OK. I can’t imagine what they have been through. I am so glad if I have been able to make a difference to their life. It’s been such a life-affirming process for me.”

Do you want to make a donation?

You’ll need to be:

  • Aged between 18 and 35
  • Have given, or be prepared to give, blood if eligible.
  • Be able to provide a small blood sample for tissue typing.

Learn about donating bone marrow at The Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry.

Feature image: Tim Bean Photography for HerCanberra

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