Gugu Ximba (also known as Juliet) was a 38-year-old mom of two from KwaZulu-Natal who lost her life to leukaemia last year due to matching blood stem cell donors being unavailable for a transplant.
August 2023 – Gugu Ximba (also known as Juliet) was a 38-year-old mom of two from KwaZulu-Natal who lost her life to leukaemia last year due to matching blood stem cell donors being unavailable for a transplant. With only 0,04% of South Africans registered as donors, DKMS Africa is leveraging its annual Sunflower Day on 15 September 2023 to increase this number so that more people are at hand to save lives.
In an interview with DKMS Africa shortly before her death, Gugu shared; “You never realise the importance of becoming a donor until it happens to you or to your family. I urge everyone to educate themselves about blood cancers and to register, you might just save a life.”
“Sunflower Day is geared towards raising funds for and awareness around blood cancers,” says Palesa Mokomele, the organisation’s Head of Community Engagement and Communications, who explains that this year, an even bigger emphasis will be placed on commemorating those like Gugu who have passed away from blood cancers due to a lack of donors on the South African registry.”
A family torn by blood cancer
Leukaemia was not foreign to Gugu and her family. Many years ago, her mother was diagnosed with the same blood disorder and fought bravely, but ultimately lost her fight. When Gugu began to feel dizzy, had blurry vision, and experienced persistent headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath, she knew that something was wrong. Although she was scared and shocked that she had the same illness that took her mother, she remained hopeful that she wouldn’t share the same fate.
Mokomele explains that DKMS tried to find a donor on the South African registry who was Black and of African descent as this would have been Gugu best match. “This is because blood stem cell matches are based on tissue type and not blood type, so there needs to be a high degree of similarity between the tissue characteristics of the donor and patient. However, with registered donors being predominantly White, her chances of finding a match were very low. And although she eventually managed to find two matches in South Africa, neither were available for a transplant. Gugu’s last hope was to look internationally in order to increase her chance of finding a match, but after two prospective donors from overseas fell through, she unfortunately passed away.”
Now is the time to answer the call
DKMS Africa is urgently calling on all South Africans between the ages of 17 and 55 years old who are in general good health to continue to heed Gugu’s plea in order to save other patients and register as blood stem cell donors. Registration is completely free and takes less than five minutes to complete.
Gugu’s only wish was for God to grant her time to raise her children, but she ultimately had to leave this responsibility to her younger sister Cebo, an unemployed nursing graduate, who was already raising her own two sons and her late brother’s daughter. “I knew nothing about blood stem cell donation until Gugu got sick, but perhaps if we had known about it sooner, we could have found a donor and she would still be here with us, watching her children grow up,” laments Cebo, who today is a DKMS Africa volunteer on a mission to ensure that no one else is lost to blood cancer due to the lack of an available donor.
“Gugu wanted to one day build a home for her and her siblings’ children and while she sadly didn’t get to see this come to fruition, her story highlights the importance of becoming a donor, particularly among Black, Coloured, Indian, and Asian South Africans,” adds Mokomele.
Planting seeds of hope
Every year, Sunflower Day is celebrated in September to raise funds so that DKMS Africa can cover the costs of registering as many people as possible in the hope that one day a suitable matching donor can be found for everyone in need. This is done through the sale of Tubes of Hope (TOPEs) at Pick n Pay stores nationwide which are now on shelves for R30.
Vaughan Pierce, Head of ESG: Pick n Pay says, “Over the past 20 years, Pick n Pay has been actively involved in bringing hope to patients suffering from blood cancers by connecting our customers with DKMS’ Africa’s cause. Through their generosity, we have been able to donate millions of Rands to support the important work being done to grow and diversify the donor registry in South Africa.”
“Ahead of Sunflower Day, we encourage South Africans to think about the 20 people who are diagnosed with a blood cancer every day and whose best chance for survival is a blood stem cell transplant from a matching donor. We also urge them to hold patients like Gugu and her mother close to their hearts who might otherwise still be here today had they found a match. Most importantly, we call on the country to not only register as blood stem cell donors but, ask that if people are found to be matches, that they come forward and donate – they might just save a life,” concludes Mokomele.
Answer the call! Register today at www.dkms-africa.org/register-now or for more information, contact 0800 12 10 82.