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I tried to save my sister’s life

December 12, 2023

Every blood stem cell donation gives someone living with blood cancer or a related condition a second chance at life, but not every story of a stem cell transplant has a happy ending. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of donors and doctors, the disease is too aggressive or the transplant fails.

That’s what happened to Jacki. She donated blood stem cells to her sister Kelly, who was diagnosed at an early age with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a rare and deadly blood cancer. Jacki reached out to us to share her story with you, and to show how each person’s journey is unique, and every individual story matters.

I tried to save my little sister’s life and when it didn’t work, I felt like I failed. I was absolutely heartbroken. I remember every single tiny detail about that day. In the car back from the hospital mum held Kelly in the back seat, rocking and singing to her. Then my little sister took her last breath.

I heard the car come up the driveway and got excited. She was back! I ran out the door to greet them, but dad insisted I wait inside. The next minute changed me forever. It felt like my soul left my body, drifting above me as though I was watching a movie. Mum walked in carrying Kelly, tears filling her eyes. Kelly’s eyes were closed, she was lifeless. I was seven at the time and smart enough to know what that meant, having lost my best friend Amelia only a short time before this from neuroblastoma. Death was becoming a frequent event. Tears began to flood my eyes, saturating my face, as I followed mum to nan’s bed where she laid Kelly down as though she was sleeping.

I sat with her, holding her hand for what felt like an eternity. As time went on, she began to go cold and stiff. I could not stop the overwhelming sadness that took over me.

‘The articles said she was in remission, they said the stem cell transplant was a success. They said I saved her by donating mine to her, so how? How can that change?’

That morning, she woke up with a croaky voice. We were playing as normal at my grandparents’ house in Sydney. She was still giggling and smiling. She was tired, but that was nothing new. Mum explained, “Kelly just needs platelets, so I’ll take her to the hospital shortly.”

It’s an easy fix, it’s happened before. Kelly had been diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukaemia) when she was a baby. The doctors told us it was rare for a child to be diagnosed with AML. The prior year and a half, I’d become a little nurse in the children’s oncology ward at Camperdown hospital, taking all the kids’ temperatures several times a day and recording them on the clipboards at the end of their hospital beds. The nurses even found me a uniform to wear to ‘work’ every day, as I tried to keep myself busy and be useful.

I jumped at the opportunity when my blood stem cells were the closest match for Kelly, and I was gowning up, ready for theatre, for a stem cell transplant. If people ask me what’s it like to donate stem cells, my reply is always this: “If you could save a life, would you?”

It was the easiest experience in the world, in and out so fast, and just a few needles into my hips to draw out the stem cells from my bone marrow.

Currently, around 90 percent of stem cell donations in Australia involve peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) being extracted via the bloodstream. It’s a non-invasive procedure that’s carried out in a hospital and is like a long blood donation. For the 1 out of 10 donors like Jacki who donate by bone marrow, the procedure used is painless. Donors are put under general anaesthesia, so are completely asleep for the 45 minutes to an hour it takes to extract enough marrow.

As Kelly laid so peacefully and all the chatter began to stop, a car came to pick Kelly up. The man moved her into a tarp bag on a narrow trolley. He zipped it all the way up. He drove her away and I never saw her again. I kept reliving that moment until I learnt what cremation was at her funeral. Then I kept reliving that moment of devastation and deep sorrow. The horror, anguish, and agony weighted in my heart. It was my reality!

I struggled to talk about her for a long time. Being told not to cry felt conflicting and wrong. I remember confiding to a person who had lost their brother of my loss. He told me that because I was a child, it was easier for me. So, I stopped talking about her altogether, assuming my feelings were not valid. As an adult I’ve learned my feelings obviously matter, just like every human. My BFF of 25 years did not even know I had a sister until I began therapy, which took years to work through.

Meeting people like my friend Rebecca (she survived leukaemia), the instant unspoken bond that was created from meeting each other felt like such a gift. There are absolutely so many stories of survival, and when treatment doesn’t work, often a blood stem cell transplant is the only option left to save someone’s life. Each person’s journey is unique to them, and each individual story matters.

As the years have gone on, I found Strength To Give and the amazing gift donors like you offer to others living with blood cancer and related, life-threatening conditions. I’m so passionate about sharing stories that matter; ones that can change lives, make a difference, or educate. Being a donor was an absolute honour. For me to be able to give a potential life-saving part of myself to my sister was such an amazing gift. In her case, it didn’t work, but in other cases there are so many successful results. I absolutely would do it again in a heartbeat.

YO-LO, make it count!

“Life is certainly a journey, full of so many factors out of our control. Giving back, educating, and shedding light on things that matter is something I’m very passionate about.”

Jacki Jones


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