'My hero' says New York policeman whose life saved by transatlantic donation

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A British woman has saved the life of a 9/11 hero by providing a transatlantic stem cell donation.

New York police officer Greg Holgerson was diagnosed with leukaemia, which doctors believe was brought on by his efforts following the terror attack on the World Trade Center.

He was told that a stem cell donation was his best hope of survival and following a worldwide search Sue Harrison, from Northampton, was found to be a perfect match.

Mr Holgerson, 42, had been a police officer for a year-and-a-half before the 2001 attack. He had been off-duty when the attack happened, and was called in to help.

"We watched it on TV and when the second plane hit we knew something really wasn't right and it might be an attack," he said.

"It was scary - you had the two planes but you didn't know if there were going to be more. 

"About 5pm they sent us over to relieve the guys who were there. We saw all the terrible destruction but we had to secure the area and help with the recovery in any way we could.

"Everyone there was covered in dust and debris. It looked like it was snowing, it was just surreal. I was born and raised in New York and it was heartbreaking to see. There were so many innocent lives taken."

Twelve years later he was diagnosed with blood cancer, which his doctors linked to his work in the aftermath of the attack.

"When I was told it was leukaemia I was devastated. I had two small children and I was only 39 years old. It was all new to me and you think the worst," he said.

"As someone who was involved in 9/11, I heard there were a lot of people getting sick but it didn't really cross my mind that it might happen to me or why I was sick.

"When I first went into the hospital they knew I was a police officer and they asked me if was I down at the World Trade Center on the day and the following days and they told me about the link between the two. You see more and more people that were down there getting sick - it's not a coincidence."

After undergoing several courses of chemotherapy he went into remission but a year later the cancer returned and he was told his best hope was to find a stem cell donor.

Ms Harrison, 52, signed up to the Anthony Nolan register in the 1980s when she was in her early twenties.

She said: "I signed up after I met my husband Robert, who lost his mother to leukaemia sadly when there wasn't a register around to help. I just thought why not? It didn't involve too much effort from me and it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. I put my card in the drawer and just completely forgot about it.  

"It was a real shock to hear I was a match so many years later. I was surprised by how few people actually get a match so it was very special."

Strict anonymity rules usually mean that donors do not have the chance to meet recipients for at least two years after a transplant has taken place, the Anthony Nolan blood cancer charity said. 

But the pair had been exchanging letters through the charity following the stem cell transplant in 2014 and finally had a chance to meet earlier this month.

Mr Holgerson said, "It was an unbelievable moment to finally meet Sue in person and give her a big hug - she's my hero. It's impossible to find the words to sum up what she has done for me and family. 'Thank you' just doesn't seem enough. Put simply, if it wasn't for her I might not be here today. 

"I feel lucky to have a donor but I'm even more fortunate to have Sue because she is so lovely. It's been amazing to share our different sides of the story and to show her the impact her donation has had. She feels like part of the family now."

Ms Harrison added: "It was very emotional to meet Greg, I can't imagine what he's seen and been through, it just seems so unfair that he got his cancer through helping others.

"He often says he can't thank me enough but seeing his family together and knowing those children will be able to grow up with their dad, his wife with a husband, is thanks enough for me."

Donors can sign up to the register between the ages of 16-30 but stay on it until they are 60.

:: For more information, visit: www.anthonynolan.org.