Irina doesn’t know the name of the person who saved her child’s life. Vlad is growing, maturing, and displaying his own unique personality—as if nothing ever happened. Vlad Demidov and his mother Irina are the new heroes of the Blood Family project.

Vlad himself really wants for “nothing to have ever happened”. He’s decided for himself that he was never sick and never in hospital. These days, everything is great. He’s clear on what he wants to play, what he wants to do, and what cartoons he wants to watch. He’s the full-fledged master of the household, wilful and decisive. All his mother and grandmother can do is say yes to everything. The only rebel is his big sister Anya, but she spends half the day in school, so Vlad has plenty of room to express himself.

“What can you do? That’s just the way he is,” mother and grandmother say in unison.

Vlad is four years old. Three years ago he had a bone marrow transplant, with stem cells taken from an anonymous donor from the Samara registry. That’s why Irina has no idea who saved Vlad. All she knows is the official information that some woman gave her newborn daughter’s cord blood to a donor bank so that one day those cells might save someone’s life. And they really did. We can see it with our own eyes.

Walking in a local park

Vlad is friendly and welcoming. He throws open the door to his room, revealing construction sets, toys, books, and a bed turned into a racing car, with a stuffed hare that could be either a toy or a pillow. It turns out that that hare was by Vlad’s side through his every trial, from intensive care in the hospital in Nizhny Novgorod (where the family now lives), to Moscow’s Dmitry Rogachev Centre, and even to Vlad’s sterile room in the transplant ward. Back when his mum stood at the entrance of that very first intensive care ward, a tiny Vlad would wipe her tears with that toy hare’s ear.

Take even a one-in-a-hundred chance

“At ten months old, a bruise turned up under Vlad’s eye. The doctor at the clinic didn’t seem to care, and suggested giving it time and coming back in a year for a scheduled checkup. But my son was so sick that I had to call an ambulance,” Irina recalls. “They sent him straight into intensive care. One blood test later, they told us they suspected leukaemia. The time he spent in intensive care, I spent in a church.”

A week later, her son came back, having lost a lot of weight and gained a second bruise, and feeling utterly drained. During that time, Irina put together her documents, arranged for him to be taken into the Dmitry Rogachev Centre, and, ten hours of ambulance travel later, began to hope for the first time in many days that it might all work out. “I saw how smoothly the hospital was being run, and how the doctors looked more like one big family… That was when I understood that here they’d help us for sure. Today I know that if it wasn’t for these incredible people, our children wouldn’t be alive and healthy. Of course, when I heard the diagnosis (acute lymphoblastic leukaemia - ed.), I was at a loss. But I wasn’t scared. Not even when I had to sign, in triplicate, documents that said I was taking responsibility and approving experimental treatments which might end up doing nothing.”

Don’t lose hope, but have faith and wait

The chemotherapy Vlad was prescribed didn’t help. The illness refused to go away. But the doctors didn’t give up, and kept looking for new possibilities. Irina signed off on every kind of treatment without a second’s hesitation. “My relatives didn’t understand. They kept saying that I should take Vlad home. I didn’t understand them—how can you refuse when there’s even a one-in-a-hundred chance? And of course, the doctors said that he needed a bone marrow transplant, and that they had to give him one the second he went into remission. But we had trouble finding a donor. I was ineligible because of the state of my health, and we couldn’t find an unrelated doctor. We tried Anya, Vlad’s half-sister, and she bravely went through the tests at our hospital. She was determined to “save my brother”. That’s why when they told her she was incompatible, she was devastated.”

Vlad with his mum Irina

They found a donor in the Samara registry, and just in time. Vlad was hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so sick that he couldn’t sit up or play. Irina would take him around the hospital corridors in a pram: pram in one hand, twelve-dose infusion pump in the other. “I did my best to find ways to entertain him at least a little. Sometimes we’d even break rules, but I felt I had to cheer him up. It feels like with all the problems we were facing at the time, I can hardly remember the moment when they told us that they’d found cord blood, they’d found a donor. It was like walking through fog.

Will Vlad ever find out about his past?

Irina believes that he absolutely has to know about it, even though right now he’s rejecting the illness and everything to do with it. He doesn’t want to go to hospital or see doctors in their labcoats. That said, he doesn’t mind having two birthday parties a year. That suits him just fine. “But I don’t intend to hide anything from him. The question is when he’ll be ready to learn the details, and when he’ll start asking questions. I imagine it’ll be closer to his teens. Obviously, he has to know everything, because he’s going to grow up, have relationships and have children (please, God, give me grandchildren!), and he has to know what happened to him. When it’s time, I’ll show him all the pictures I took before, during and after the illness, and the video we’re recording today.

Words that must be said

The rules say that the donor’s information has to be kept private. At the time of the transplant, such details were the last thing on Irina’s mind. The important thing was that the doctors made it in time, the donor cells did their job, and Vlad started getting better. Still, Irina couldn’t help being curious, and when she and Vlad started visiting the Dmitry Rogachev Centre for outpatient checkups, she couldn’t help peeking at the chart. “I found out that the stem cells came from cord blood when some family out there had a daughter. At first, of course, I was grateful for even that much information. But three years later, I want to know more. And not just know more, but thank that family for our new life. I think I’d burst into tears if I ever saw their picture. And if we met, I’d thank them from the bottom of my heart for what they did, for taking that responsibility on themselves, and for helping a handful of distant strangers by giving their cord blood to the donor registry. Thank you to the parents, and thank you to the little girl for being born and giving Vlad the gift of new life.”

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

Raad Vlad's story in Russian here.