For three years Katie Minton owed her life to a stranger after undergoing a stem cell transplant as she battled leukaemia.
The procedure was the best hope of a cure for the then-teenager, from Worthing, whose cancer had returned for a second time in 12 months.
But little did she know that it was a transatlantic match that made the operation possible at University Hospital Southampton – until she got the chance to find the woman who saved her life and discovered she lives 5,000 miles away in California.
After making contact via the Anthony Nolan Trust asking for help in tracing her donor, it was a matter of weeks before Katie received a letter from Valerie Rodriguez, 33, who lives in San Francisco.
Now they have met and formed a rare and special friendship that will never be broken.
The pair began emailing and made contact on social media and finally met in person after Valerie and her mum, Kim, flew to London to meet Katie. The new-found friends spent three days getting to know each other and sightseeing.
Katie said: “It’s been an amazing experience. We bonded straight away and chat frequently and with ease, as if we’ve known each other for years. I’m so grateful to Valerie. Without her match I’m not sure what position I’d be in now. Meeting both her and her mum has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life and they are both very special to me.”
Valerie’s involvement began in December, 2017, when she saw a friend’s social-media post about the ‘dire’ need for marrow donoers.
“I clicked the link and registered without thinking twice,” said Valerie. “It seemed to be an obvious decision – at best I’m able to give someone hope and a second chance at life and, at worst, I spend a few minutes of my time to find out there’s one less person out there needing a donor.
“Both sounded like positive outcomes and all it took was a cheek swab.”
Five months later, Valerie learned she was a potential match. And then, more than two years after that, she was sitting at her computer finishing work when she received an email from her donor co-ordinator bringing good news.
Valerie said: “She received a letter from the recipient and wanted to pass it along to me.
“I let out a breath of relief I didn’t realise I had been holding for the past couple of years. Even before opening it this letter meant she was okay. I read it through tears and felt such a connection to this stranger on the other side of the world.
“I wrote a letter back that night, letting her know how much I had thought about her since our transplant and how happy I was to hear from her.
“We passed emails back and forth like old friends – I admired how she was able to pull growth and beauty out of such a scary time in her life and how she never let her illness define her.
“We had a rare and special connection, so I took a chance and asked if she’d like to meet in person.
“I don’t think I got any sleep the night before we met. I was excited and anxious and couldn’t wait to see her in person. When she walked up, we gave each other the tightest hug.
“Right away it felt like I had known her forever and our friendship only grew the rest of our trip. I can honestly say that my experience with Katie has been one of the greatest highlights in my life.
“Thanks to a couple of amazing hospitals, a tonne of medical staff and a little bit of chance, we will forever have family in each other. What a beautiful thing.”
Katie had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in May, 2017, at the age of 17, and was referred to University Hospital Southampton for treatment. She underwent six months of gruelling chemotherapy and initially responded well and went into remission. But in May, 2018, she relapsed.
Her medical team at Southampton advised her best option was further chemotherapy, total body irradiation and a stem-cell transplant.
Katie said: “Since my original diagnosis, I always insisted I’d never have a transplant, out of fear and anxiety. However, when you’re put in the situation like I was in you do whatever it takes and you become stronger than you ever thought you could be.”
Katie’s allogenic stem cell transplant took place three months after she relapsed.
She said: “The transplant experience is a scary one, lots of daunting conversations and frightening facts but my best advice to anyone going through something similar is to take each day at a time.
“I found the whole idea of isolating in one room so scary, the thought of not being able to go outside doing the things I loved was heart-breaking but I looked at the bigger picture and realised I was doing this to allow myself to have a future.
“I couldn’t have made it through those early days without the amazing support from the transplant team in Southampton. If I was feeling scared or low they were there immediately to help calm me and alleviate my fears.
“They were like a second family to me while I was in hospital – and still are.”
Katie, who lives with her father Geoff and brother Ryan, said her family were her rock during the rollercoaster period in her life.
“My family were the greatest support to me – they were there no matter what,” she added.
“Even if I wasn’t up to talking just the thought of them being there for me was enough to keep me company and stop me from feeling lonely. Video calls were another way I stayed connected to the outside world which was so important to me.”
It took 16 months of recovery before Katie started to feel like she was turning a corner. She said: “When I came out after my transplant, I was a bit naive as to how long recovery would take – it’s a slow process but I was finally starting to get my life back.
“Being able to go back out doing things with friends and family was the most magical feeling and was worth every second of the transplant process.”
But then the pandemic hit and life changed for Katie once again.
“I know the pandemic has affected so many people but, at that time, I found it really hard as returning to normal for me seemed like it had been interrupted,” she said. “But I got my head around this new way of life eventually and even managed to pass my driving test in August, 2019.”
She also started a new job as a medical receptionist at a GP surgery.
Katie’s post-transplant care has been ongoing throughout the pandemic and she now has check-up appointments every three months.
She remains in remission, has now fully recovered from the transplant and she is back doing the things she enjoys most – seeing friends and going to concerts.
Katie said: “I feel so lucky to have been treated in Southampton and can see why they have the best outcomes. It is obvious how much they care for their patients, not just on a medical level but on a personal level too. They are absolutely incredible and saved my life – for that I will be forever grateful.”