Thanks to a stranger’s act of goodwill, Levi Leggett was given a second chance at life. By Catriona Ross
Levi Leggett, 24, is a university student who enjoys braais with friends, indoor soccer and weight training. But he has never forgotten how close to death he came in his teens, and how grateful he is to a selfless stranger from overseas.
A DEADLY DIAGNOSIS
Levi had just settled into high school in Kuils River, near Cape Town, when he noticed blue bruises on his body. His doctor thought they were the result of rough play, and he continued playing rugby and cricket. But after he got into a scuffle with another boy, Levi says ‘his hand print stayed on my face for four days. It worried everyone’.
Wondering whether her son was dabbling in drugs, his mother requested he have a blood test, which is how Levi’s condition was diagnosed: aplastic anaemia, where the bone marrow cannot produce sufficient blood cells. ‘Any knock or an infection could have killed me,’ Levi says.
As a bone marrow transplant could offer a cure, his doctor contacted the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), who searched for a match, first locally, then internationally. ‘I was worried, as I couldn’t live long like that,’ he recalls. After seven months, a match was found in Australia.
THE DAILY GRIND
Levi stayed home from school for those gruelling months to avoid infection. ‘I had to inject myself daily, take up to 35 tablets a day, wear a mask and stay in bed in my room with the door closed. Even my younger sister couldn’t see me,’ he says. ‘You’re at your weakest while everyone around you is living life. I thought, “Why me?” I got angry; I felt like I was going mad. One day I even ripped the curtains down.’
Levi’s parents were his primary support: his mother quit her job as a manager in clothing manufacture and began working from home as an estate agent.
‘I was told there was a good chance that I would die during the transplant if my body rejected the donor’s bone marrow,’ he explains. But it was a risk Levi had to take as the procedure was his last chance for survival. Thankfully, his transplant – which was essentially a transfusion, in which the donor’s stem cells are trickled into the patient’s body via an intravenous line – went smoothly, and Levi was discharged after four weeks in hospital.
BACK TO LIFE
Two months later, Levi could return to school. ‘I was actually very excited to go back!’ Levi admits. Starting in September, he reconnected with his friends, regained weight, caught up
on schoolwork and passed his exams.
‘I went through a bit of a rough patch in Grades 10 and 11,’ he reveals. ‘Then I started maturing and accepting my disease. I actually think it moulded me into a much better person. I realised that getting into trouble was not the way to go; rather be a nice guy and have purpose.’
While he has since found new, like-minded friends, Levi notes that many from his school crowd got into drugs, and lost their jobs. Although he did go to parties, he always played safe.
‘I was told drugs could aggravate my condition so I shouldn’t go down the wrong path. I’m very glad I didn’t. My illness and transplant happened at the perfect time. I thank God for that, as I could have been a drug addict.’
Currently studying towards a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of the Western Cape, Levi takes no medication and only needs a medical check-up every three years. However, he still tires quickly. ‘That’s why I work out and stay fit,’ he says.
A decade after his transplant, Levi is beyond thankful for his anonymous Australian donor. ‘I wonder if my donor ever thinks about the person he or she donated to, changing someone’s life,’ Levi notes. ‘It was a remarkably great thing to do.’
ABOUT THE SOUTH AFRICAN BONE MARROW REGISTRY
Each year, hundreds of South Africans with blood diseases such as leukaemia reach the point where their only chance of survival is a bone marrow transplant. This tissue produces red cells to carry oxygen, white cells to fight infection and platelets to prevent bleeding.
‘The main problem is finding a compatible donor. The chance is one in 100 000,’ explains Professor Ernette du Toit, medical director at SABMR. ‘Family members, especially siblings, are generally most suitable, but because today’s average family is small, only 30% of patients will have a compatible sibling. For the other 70%, their only hope is to find a match via SABMR, linked to 74 international registries. More local donors are needed – particularly black donors, who comprise fewer than 5 000 of our 70 000 registered donors – since a match is usually found within the same ethnic group as a patient.’
HOW TO HELP
• Register as a donor. Any healthy person age 18 to 45 can register as a donor via The Sunflower Fund on 0800 121 082. A small sample of your blood will be taken for tissue typing. If you’re a match for a patient in future, you’ll be contacted, then linked to a machine by an intravenous line for approximately six hours in hospital. This is when stem cells are collected from your blood.
• Donate money to the SABMR. A non-profit organisation, the SABMR relies on donations to continue its work. Visit sabmr.co.za and click the ‘donate’ button.