I registered to become a stem cell donor long before I was actually able to make a donation. I was around 18 and playing for Werder Bremen’s second side. There was a drive in Bremen at the time to try to save the life of someone who was very ill and in acute need of stem cells.
The club suggested the whole team register. I did it at the time. To be honest, I was at an age where I had not thought about such things and I did it because most of the other players did it. I probably should have read up a little bit about it, but looking back, of course, I am glad that I decided to become a donor.
For many years, I was not a match for anybody and somewhere along the way, I forgot that I had registered with the DKMS [Deutsche Knochenmarkspenderdatei]. That’s the organisation who handle everything and are part of a global database.
Many years later, at the beginning of 2018, I received a call. I was on holiday at the time and generally I do not answer phone calls of numbers I do not know. However, after a while, I answered and it was from the DKMS, saying that they had identified a patient who might be a match for me and asked me to go to a hospital in Germany to test whether I was really a 100 percent match to what the patient required.
I was a little bit overwhelmed as I did not know what was going to happen.
Even though it was so long since I had registered, there was no part of me that said I should not go through with it. At the time, and even now, there is no relationship between the amount of effort that I have to put in, or what it means to me, compared to what it means to be able to save a life. I would always do it again, there is simply no comparison.
It took about two weeks for them to come back to me. They told me I was a match. From then, everything happened pretty quickly. I had to let my club know. It is not like I can say, I have a break in three or four weeks, can I do it then? The club gave me the go-ahead – though to be honest, I would have done it without them – so I was happy that they said yes.
I then had to go back to the hospital and was given some vials and syringes and told that I had to inject something like a blood thinner into my stomach. That flushes the stem cells into the bloodstream. I suppose I could have gone to my doctor and asked him to give me the daily injections, but I decided to do it myself.
After five days I returned to the hospital. It was very well organised. I was hooked up to some kind of machine and it was a bit like making a blood donation. I sat there for the full five hours as they pumped blood out of me. It was pretty exhausting. The blood was then rushed to America, where the patient was, but that was the only thing that I knew about him.
The club put out a press release about what I had done but, to be honest, I don’t really like to be at the centre of things. I am a quiet sort of person. But it became a huge story. All over the Netherlands there were signs put up at matches that weekend and many stories were written about it. [Editor’s note: later that year Thy was awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award].
In hindsight I was happy about the publicity, because some 20,000 people signed up to become stem cell donors after reading about the story.
After two years I had some contact with the person who received my blood. There is a two-year window in which no contact should take place as that is the period needed to see whether the procedure has worked or not. We had both said that we were willing to connect with each other after the two years and he phoned me and told me that I had saved his life.
It was an American and he told me of his life living with the illness and how much it meant to him that there was somebody willing to help him. For his family it also meant so much, as they had always had the fear that no donor could be found. For me, it was such a small thing, but for him it was the biggest thing in the world.
As footballers we have a responsibility to act as role models. In most countries football and footballers are in the limelight. That is why the story became so big.
I think I was the first footballer who became a cell stem donor and was written about. Footballers should stand up for things that they believe in. A lot of people say that footballers can no longer be true to themselves but it is important that you are and, if you are able to help somebody, you should take the opportunity and do it.
If somebody asks me for help, I try to help if I can. In this case I was able to do so.
In our series #CommunityChampion, we highlight a professional footballer’s activities that help impact the lives of other people. Discover more HERE.