The heart of Pablo Ráez and his everlasting slogan 'always strong' has not stopped beating for a single second. Even though his body left this world almost exactly a year ago, his spirit, his story and above all his message, continue to have an effect on the consciences of people in Malaga just as he did with his first message, which appeared on Instagram back in September 2015. “Today I have been told I have leukemia. All I will say is that I am not going to lose hope, strength or my smile,” he posted.
His campaign to encourage people to become bone marrow donors, with a much more altruistic objective than obtaining a cure for himself, resulted in the donor banks expanding by 1,300 per cent in Malaga province and many people like Nereida, Patricia, Miguel, Miriam, Pablo, Lidia, Sonia, Lorena and Mariem (who feature in this article) registered as donors and decided to continue Pablo's legacy.
“As Pablo can't do it himself now, we decided to carry on with his work,” explains Lidia Aguilar, one of the people who decided to become a donor after learning about the case of this young man from Marbella. Now aged 30, she says she was inspired by the strength and charisma shown by Pablo in every one of his videos. It was the push she needed to listen to her conscience and add her name to the register of volunteers created by the Josep Carreras International Foundation, with which the Regional Blood Transfusion Centre of Malaga (CRTS) collaborates. “Many people are aware of the importance now, but may be scared to register because they are afraid of the unknown,” she says.
Someone else who signed up immediately was Miguel González, one of Pablo's teachers at the Medac school in the Carretera de Cadiz district. “These are things that seem very distant and don't really affect you until you realise that they could happen to you too,” he says. In his case, from the moment he took this step he has thought about it every day. “At first I saw it as an act of generosity. I thought I was being brave. Now, though, I have realised that doing this is an obligation,” he says.
When Pablo Ráez's case became known in the province and then around the world through barely a handful of posts on Twitter, only 200 people a month were registering as donors. That figure rose to 2,000 and in 2016 the province registered a record 11,201 new bone marrow donors, which was an increase of 1,300 per cent.
At present there are an estimated 215,000 volunteers registered in Spain and one third of them are from Andalucía. Sergio Fernández, a doctor at the Regional Blood Transfusion Centre, says Pablo's campaign has also increased interest in donating blood in Malaga province, because it is important to remember that people who need bone marrow also need a great deal of blood during the treatment.
Miriam Enríquez also became a donor after Pablo went public about his fight against leukemia. “People in my family have also had cancer, but it was Pablo's strength which made me take the decision; the way in which he let people know what was happening to him,” she explains. Although so far she has not received the call asking her to give part of her life to another person, she believes that it would be “the most generous thing anyone can do, to give a sick person another chance”. Until this happens (or not, because only one in every 30,000 people end up donating their bone marrow) she considers it essential to continue carrying out awareness campaigns.
One of the most recent people to register is Mariem Zarrabi, a 20-year-old from Morocco who says she is still affected now by Pablo's story. She was able to have a chat with him at the hospital one day and will never forget the way he was always smiling. “He was someone who always transmitted hope and he was able to reach many people who would otherwise have been too afraid to become donors,” she says.
Fear of the unknown
Dr Fernández, of the CRTS, says it is normal for people to feel afraid of the unknown when they are facing the donor process for the first time. He offers reassurance about two of the main concerns: the majority of bone marrow extractions are carried out without the donor needing to stay in hospital or undergo surgery, and the donor does not end up lacking bone marrow because it regenerates automatically in less than a month.
He says the donation process is very simple and basically consists of three steps. The first is for people who are interested in becoming donors to be registered and have a blood test to determine their parameters of compatibility. Then, and only if their bone marrow is considered compatible with that of someone who is ill, they are asked to go for a more complete test to determine whether they are the ideal person. Finally, if it is decided that the donor has maximum compatibility with the patient, the bone marrow is extracted.
In the majority of cases this is done as an outpatient and no anaesthetic is needed. Only in a few specific cases is a small operation required and the donor needs to be hospitalised. The donor never has to go to the recipient's town or city. Only the bone marrow is taken to the patient.
Lorena Pírez, a 23-year-old student who registered as a donor a year ago, says it is a shame that so many people are unaware of the matter and she believes the awareness campaigns are essential because many people are prepared to give blood but don't think about donating bone marrow.
“Pablo's awareness campaign was much more effective than any that a hospital could do,” she says. That is why she decided to add her name to the register of the 'Always Strong!' donors.