This must rank as some of the hardest TV viewing I’ve ever subjected myself to – though the programme title was obviously a bit of a clue that all wasn’t going to be plain sailing.

The show on 12th June 2007 was the first in a new series documenting the story of a few patients’ journey from diagnosis through whatever treatment was deemed necessary during the period of time the film crew were present. Obviously the crew would only be available for a few months, the treatment may continue for a lifetime, however short or long that may be.

This week’s show focussed on two patients, Andrew and Charlotte.  They were separated not only by geography, with Charlotte being treated in Bristol and Andrew up in Scotland – but also the outlook for each was miles apart too.  Andrew’s condition seemed to be fairly straight forward and his treatment plan was mapped out for the months ahead, whereas Charlotte’s case was much more complex and due to it’s nature, the chances of survival were pretty bleak.

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy were not having any positive affect, and the negative effects were all the more telling on a young teenage girl whose only concerns should be her schoolwork and what clothes and make-up to wear.  Instead she had to try to retain a positive outlook on life despite knowing she had to have a bone marrow transplant – a once in a lifetime chance of survival, if it went wrong then there was no hope.

Her parents could have took the easy route out and reassured her that everything was going to be alright, that after the operation she would be fine and dandy but rather than lie to their daughter and give her false hope they were honest about her chances  I don’t think many parents would have been brave enough to do that, and I admired them for their strength.  Their honesty and support allowed Charlotte to tackle the illness in a positive state of mind, and with a determination to overcome any obstacle in her road to recovery.

The search for a match to enable the transplant to go ahead found that there were no possible donors anywhere in Britain, so the search was widened yet still no exact matches were found.  A close match was found in Germany and the doctors decided that there was no option but to give it a try – on a scale of 1 to 10, the match was rated as a 9 so they were pretty hopeful.

Charlotte had to undergo a week of treatment to prepare for the transplant, none of which looked very pleasant but never once did we see her complain.  The transplant process itself was a bit of a shock for me – I assumed it would be done in an operating theatre with the patient unconscious, but it was actually done in her hospital bed with Charlotte’s family around her.  The bone marrow itself wasn’t what I was expecting either – I had assumed it would be brown and thick but it’s actually bright red and was pumped into Charlotte’s back through a clear plastic tube.

The days after the transplant are the most nervy and also the most dangerous. This is when there is a high risk that the patient will succumb to an infection, so they are kept isolated with only a select few visitors allowed in to see them.  It’s also a tense time as they wait to see whether the operation has been a success.  Blood test are taken daily to see whether there has been any change, and it’s only when there are signs of recovery that Charlotte would be allowed to leave the hospital and return home.

On entry to the hospital for the transplant, she had asked her consultant what the quickest time was for someone to be discharged afterwards, and on hearing it was 26 days she immediately set herself the target of beating that time.  Initially after the operation she was very weak and ill for the first few days, however she was back to her normally self soon after, and was aching to get home to beat the record.

The stumbling block was that her blood tests were showing no sign that the transplant was starting to work, however the good news finally came on the 26th day when her consultant agreed that she could leave hospital, thereby equalling the previous record.

Although this was obviously good news, her story is by no means over.  The cameras went back to monitor her progress a few months later, and found that she had been allowed to return to school and that the future was looking bright for her and her family.  There was still a long way to go, and there would be many checkups and tests to come in her life – but it was a relief to know that she still had a life to lead, which was mainly thanks to her doctors and that German bone marrow donor.

Andrew’s story had started with him newly diagnosed, and at the start of his treatment.  His consultant spoke with Andrew and his mother to explain what would be happening over the next few months and also to answer any questions they might have.  Being told that your son has a life threatening illness would knock any parent for six and it’s only natural that they are scared, but if the consultant takes the time to explain exactly what is going on then I’m sure that helps to de-mystify things slightly.  Often the uncertainty of what is actually happening and what lies ahead adds to the worry and confusion to only make things worse.

A few days later, Andrew was interviewed by himself without his parents present and he expressed his true feelings.  Before, when his mother had been present, he seemed to be fairly positive and was taking it all in his stride, but without her there he spoke of how scared he really was, and how a 50/50 chance of survival wasn’t really very good.  By putting a brave face on things, he was trying not to add to the burden already on his parents and hoped that by keeping his outlook positive then some of that may rub off on his mum and dad.

He also spoke of how a 15-year old boy doesn’t expect to be hit with a life-threatening illness at that age, before his life has really begun and with so many things left undone.  Although there was still a chance that his future would be secure, a better chance than that given to Charlotte, there was also the same chance that he wouldn’t make it.

As he looked up at the camera from his hospital bed, the screen faded to black and a caption informed us that Andrew had passed away just 6 days later.  I felt numb.

His consultant explained that this disease attacks the immune system, and relatively minor infections which we would fight off without even noticing can become very serious for someone in Andrew’s position.  In his case however, he had contracted a much more serious infection which the antibiotics had little effect on, and ultimately this led to his death.

An interview with his parents later in the programme showed just how badly Andrew’s death had affected them.  Both understandably were in tears when they spoke about his last few days and hours, distraught at losing him so early.

His dad told how Andrew had gone downhill so quickly, the day before he had seemed right as rain but then the next day it was all so different.  His mum explained that when they had gone in that day, Andrew had been lying on his front complaining of pain in his hip.  He had lain like that all day, only once raising his head just to ask his mum to kiss him – this was a traumatic time for her as she knew it was likely to be the last time she got to kiss her son.

He never lifted his head again, and passed away shortly after.

To have two stories which contrasted in so many ways emphasises just what a tough task faces doctors and medical staff trying to treat cases like these.  At the start of the programme if we had been told that one patient would survive and one wasn’t going to make it then I think most viewers would have backed Andrew to be the survivor.

It was heartening to see how Charlotte and her family approached things and to see her well on the road to recovery, but similarly it was heartrending to learn of Andrew’s passing – especially when in the end it wasn’t necessarily the cancer which killed him, but instead it was an infection which a healthy 15-year old may have had a chance of overcoming.

The programme highlighted the difficulties which the hospital staff face, as well as the horrific consequences the disease can have for the patients and their families.

It can’t have been easy for either family to agree to be on a programme like this, but hopefully the pain and sorrow which they have gone through will make viewers consider registering to become bone marrow donors themselves in order to help future sufferers of leukaemia.

Anything which increases the chances of finding a match for people needing a bone marrow transplant, a treatment which is the very last resort, can only be a good thing.