Five years after her transplant, there’s no stopping Nora Simpson, 64, from Ladysmith. Next stop: the World Transplant Games in August!
In 2006, Nora Simpson was a fit 52-year-old who ran a silk flower business and played golf and competitive tennis for Natal. ‘But I started getting a very bad reaction to mosquito bites,’ she says. ‘My whole hand would swell up; my fingers looked like five bananas and I had to use ice packs.’ Eventually, blood tests revealed the devastating cause: CLL, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. A 17p deletion on her chromosomes would make it especially difficult to treat.
Yet Nora played tennis throughout her six-month course of chemotherapy, and after a series of Campath injections went into remission. ‘The best advice someone gave me, when I was petrified of how I’d react to the treatment, is that chemo is liquid gold. It’s going to heal you and be your lifesaver, so try to embrace it into your body,’ she says.
’Then we went on holiday to Namibia with friends in 2011. We had a fantastic time, but I got a mosquito bite and had a bad reaction. I knew the cancer was back.’ After exploring the options, aided by her husband Dave, who ‘researched and researched’, Nora flew to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to consult a world expert on CLL. Meanwhile, the SABMR began searching for a bone marrow donor; without a transplant, her life expectancy would be approximately two years.
A perfect match was found – a young man of 22 from Germany! Combining advice from the American specialist with that of her local specialist, Dr David Brittain, Nora underwent her transplant at Pretoria East Hospital on 1 August 2013, her ‘new birthday’.
After three difficult months in isolation in Pretoria, readmitted twice to hospital for cytomegalovirus infection, she was finally well enough to go home. ‘At one point I was too tired to sit up in bed, but I built up my fitness tree by tree on the golf course where we live, walking to a particular tree, then the next. It was a very slow process.’ A year later, however, she was playing in the KZN Tennis veterans’ championships.
Faith and support kept Nora going. ‘I’ve got an amazing family. My husband Dave was absolutely wonderful. He researched, and filtered everything he told me because I like everything sugar-coated,’ she laughs. ‘I had amazing support from my girls, Sally, Paula and Jenny, and their fantastic husbands, and from my incredible friends. My church was praying for us. Without that, I wouldn’t have made it.’
Nora trained hard for six months to compete in the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain, in 2017. Her brother Mike travelled from England to join her, and saw her win gold in the women’s singles in her age group!
Last year Nora made contact with her donor. Adrian, an aerospace engineer living near Hamburg, had tried to contact her three years after the transplant, but had had to wait until five years, as per the SABMR’s rules. ‘How do I express my gratitude to someone who gave me the opportunity to live?!’ Nora emailed him. Delighted, he wrote back, and they’ve since shared stories and family photos.
Besides working and mentoring cancer patients, Nora is training intensively for her second World Transplant Games in Newcastle, England, in August 2019. There she’ll compete in tennis and golf events, enjoy a holiday with her husband and her brother, and will finally meet her treasured donor. ‘It’s going to be so special,’ she says.
Cancer is life-changing, she says. ‘It’s been a long, tough journey. I’ve been to hell and back twice, I would not have chosen this journey but I’ve learnt so much about myself and life.’ To her, simply being alive is the greatest gift. ‘I celebrate every day. I realise I’m so fortunate to be able to enjoy my husband, my children and my grandchildren. It’s such a miracle.’