César Sánchez had the opportunity to save the life of a child he didn't know, and he didn't hesitate. He is a Local Police officer, but this act of heroism didn't take place while he was on duty but in an operating theatre and without knowing who he would be saving.
Along with other officers, César donated blood and bone marrow in a campaign started by the Local Police force in Marbella to continue the campaign started by Pablo Ráez. He doesn't normally talk about his donation, but when he does many other people tell him they have donated as well. "But they haven't," he says. "They have given a sample for the bone marrow bank, but they haven't actually donated. They don't fully understand the process".
When the blood is extracted, a sample is kept for the Bone Marrow Donors Register (REDMO) which was created by the Fundación Josep Carreras in conjunction with the world donor bank. Only half of the parametres necessary to check compatibility with a possible recipient are checked in that sample. If a recipient is found, the potential donor has to undergo a series of tests and new blood extractions to determine whether the other parametres coincide. In César's case, there was 100 per cent compatibility.
About 70 per cent of patients who need a transplant do not have a compatible donor within their family, and even if there is one, it is unusual for them to be more than 70 per cent compatible in terms of parametres. "I was like the genetic twin of this patient, and they asked me if I wanted to go ahead with the donation. I said I did," César says.
Once a donor takes this step there are two ways of donating the bone marrow: via apheresis, a form of dialysis in order to obtain the stem cells, or through surgery, where the bone marrow is extracted with a syringe directly from the iliac crest (the hip bone). The patient compatible with César had medullary aplasia, he lacked the cells needed to produce the blood in the bone marrow, so it was vital that the extraction was taken directly from the bone.
César had to spend several days at the Carlos Haya hospital, isolated, in a ward where many patients were awaiting transplants. Some were surprised when he said he was going to donate and didn't know who the recipient was. Even the medical staff were surprised that a healthy person would undergo these tests on behalf of someone they didn't know.
Last year only one other person had undergone this type of donation at the Carlos Haya, and that was on behalf of their own child.
This local hero points out that although Pablo Ráez, who began the campaign for donations died, his legacy lives on. "It is good that we are all carrying on, but this isn't a temporary fashion. There are many others like Pablo Ráez in the hospitals, people of all ages, needing bone marrow, hoping you will give a sample and donate. It isn't easy, but we are saving people's lives. One day it could be you in that situation, and you would want someone else to appear and say they will help you," he says.
Normally a litre of bone marrow is extracted but in César's case they took 1.8 litres because he was in perfect health. He doesn't smoke or drink, plays sport and doesn't suffer from any illnesses. It took his body time to recover. "My friends and family would ring me to ask how I was and I used to burst into tears. It's hard emotionally, but in the end it is worth it," he says.
In Spain donors and receivers are not allowed to be in contact or to be identified, but through the Fundación Josep Carreras, César did find out that his recipient was a 13-year-old boy from Chile. "My son is 13 as well, and when they told me the recipient was the same age I shed a couple of tears. I decided I was going to go ahead with the donation, no matter what," he says.
The donors can change their mind at any point of the process, but "you know that once the recipient is in the operating theatre to be given your bone marrow, if you don't go ahead they will die," he says.
People at the Foundation stay in contact with the donors to check progress, and a few months after the donation they told César that his recipient had survived the 100 critical days, had been released from hospital and was going to spend Christmas at home with his family. "I can't describe the satisfaction and joy that gave me. You know you have made it possible for that child to leave hospital, and that is a huge reward," he says.
César hadn't wanted to make his donation public, but the Foundation asked him to share his experience to encourage others to donate. He points out that the process is not as simple as donating blood. "You have to travel, you have to have numerous blood tests and medical check-ups. A great deal of sacrifice is involved, but we are talking about saving lives and I believe it is 100 per cent worth it," he stresses.
Some people have admitted to César that they would only donate bone marrow if it were for their own child. "If you would do it for your child, why not for mine or somebody else's?" he asks. "Put yourself in their place. We can't be so egotistical that we only think about our own families and it might even be the case that you can't help your own child but you could help someone else's," he says.
The Marbella Local Police force has recognised César's gesture and presented him with the highest police distinction possible. One of the values it recognises is putting one's life at risk in defence of someone else, which is something all police officers understand may be part of their role. César put his life at risk, not out in the streets, but in the operating theatre.
The award was presented to César by Pablo Ráez's father, as Pablo was the reason the police officer took the first step. "Thanks to him I can say that I have saved someone's life and I hope many others will follow his example, as I did," he says.