A great deal has changed for the Kartishov sisters since Katya fell ill: they've left school and university behind, and gone through much work, many unexpected discoveries, and many different roles—both girls are models working in advertising. They are a single whole, as close as two people can get. And today, they are the stars of the Family Blood project.

“I can’t handle the sight of blood,” Katya says almost like a throwaway comment.

But it’s instantly obvious that her illness is to blame—aplastic anaemia, a dangerous blood disease that can, if left untreated, quickly end a person’s life. Katya’s salvation came in the form of a bone marrow transplant, with her sister Liza as the donor.

To part and meet again

How did you find out that you’d fallen ill?

Katya Kartishov:  It was a total accident. We’d come to St Petersburg for New Year, to celebrate the start of 2005. And all of a sudden, I noticed these weird bruises and haematomas on my skin. I came home and went for a blood test, and before I knew it I was in hospital, first in Morozovskaya, then in the Russian Children’s Clinical Hospital.

Did it hurt?

Katya: It hurt a lot. And I was scared. It probably didn’t help that I was still just a kid, not long past my tenth birthday. I’m glad my mum was with me in the hospital. We were all in shock. We didn’t know anything about the illness, or about the charity which helps children fight and overcome illnesses like it.

Did the doctors, or your parents, explain to you what was happening?

Katya: To be honest, we don’t remember a word of it. I think they must have told us I was very ill, but we were children and didn’t understand at all.

Liza: When Katya got taken to hospital, I only had one thing on my mind—why have they taken my sister away? We’d been together all our lives, every minute of every day. I spent the entire following year on my own. My parents naturally spent all their attention and energy on Katya. I understood that just then, she needed it more. Every time I came to visit, I would hug and kiss her—I badly missed her love and support! I really do think that a bond between twins is much stronger than between ordinary siblings.

98% compatible sisters

Did they consider Liza as a bone marrow donor straight away?

Katya: At first, they were looking for a donor among my relatives, both close and distant. But then the doctors decided to test Liza. We were 98% compatible because we’re fraternal twins.

Liza: I think our parents didn’t think about me at that time because I was only ten. I didn’t weigh much either—they probably thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it all. But it was a complete success.

How long did it take you to recover?

Liza: I was up the next day. I came to Katya’s room right after she’d been given my cells.

Katya: Honestly, I can barely remember the transplant process. I slept through the whole thing. It made the whole thing dreamlike, without pain or any other sensations.

Liza, how did you support your sister?

Liza: I tried to do everything I could for her. I’d give her all kinds of posters to put up to make the room look pretty. And when they told her that her hair had to be shaved to a short bob, I promptly had my hair cut too.

It must have been rough to be stuck indoors!

Katya: It was. I spent all my time staring out of the window. I spent a month in my room while I recovered, which was quick enough to even surprise the doctors. And I did get to go home soon, though I was stuck wearing a mask. I can still remember the laundry list of things I wasn’t allowed. I would daydream about just a tiny piece of milk chocolate…

The bliss of taking off the mask

Tell us about how Katya came home.

Liza: Mum and I had the spring clean of the century! We threw out old furniture, bought more, and took down all the excess stuff from the walls so Katya’s room wasn’t cluttered. Katya came back wearing a dust mask. She was allowed to go for a walk once a week, but she was feeling embarrassed, so we called over our friend from next door and went out as a masked trio.

And how did people react?

Katya: They stared at us, of course. But not in a bad way. I remember what bliss it was when they let me take the mask off!

A second mother named Liza

What effect has the illness had on you?

Liza: I’ve developed a greater sense of responsibility. I’m always carrying pills for every occasion. And I always make sure Katya’s warmly dressed.

Katya: She’s like a second mother.

How do you feel about being treated that way?

Katya: You can’t imagine how glad I am to have her! She’s a sister, a friend, a helper who’s done so much for me, and to top it all off, she’s the one who gave me my life!

The present and the future

What changed in your life after the illness?

Katya: I think that was the point at which we grew up a lot. We learned to live separately, which is a huge deal for twins.

Liza: We know that we’ve been given a second chance, and we have to live up to that. For example, I give blood regularly. I’m Rh-negative, and I get a lot of calls asking for me to come in. I never say no.

How did you end up in advertising?

Liza: By accident. We knew we’d have to pay our way through university. I went to an agency and auditioned for them… and then suddenly we got called back with a role. Later we graduated from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts, department of acting, and began to star in adverts full-time. Recently we’ve opened our own agency, Twins Models. We find twin models and organise filming for them.

Katya: Right now, our main goal is to put some space between us. We have recently started different courses at the university on purpose, so each of us can have her own life.

Gift of Life thanks all donors and supporters! Together we give children and young people like Katya a better chance to beat cancer.

This is a short version of the interview. You can find the full text in Russian here.