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Blood donations gave Rachel from Nairn her bonus years — now loved ones want to help others in her memory

Rachel Suddick from Nairn died in May aged just 22 from an aggressive form of leukaemia, but her friends and family owe a debt of gratitude to the blood transfusions that extended her life.

Rachel Suddick was able to achieve so much in her short life. From left to right, Rachel, Ollie the dog, Abby Suddick and James Suddick. Image: Supplied by Give Blood 4 Good
Rachel Suddick was able to achieve so much in her short life. From left to right, Rachel, Ollie the dog, Abby Suddick and James Suddick. Image: Supplied by Give Blood 4 Good

Ella Crowther never failed to be amazed at the effects a blood transfusion would have on her best friend Rachel Suddick.

Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) at the age of just 18, Rachel, from Nairn, would often be left pale and weak as her body malfunctioned.

But a bag of red blood cells had a transformative effect.

“A blood transfusion takes about three hours and over that time she visibly changed colour,” Ella says, laughing at the memory. “She went from really, really pale to having some colour back in her checks. It was crazy.”

Rachel in hospital for a transfusion. Image: Give Blood 4 Good

Rachel died in May this year, three and a half years after her diagnosis. She was just 22, and had lived almost all of her adult life battling the blood cancer that would eventually kill her.

But though her friends and family continue to mourn her loss, they remain in awe of the blood transfusions that gave extra life to Rachel. She received hundreds of them over the course of her illness as the leukaemia robbed her body of the ability make its own blood cells.

Each transfusion was an injection of time for Rachel — time for her bone marrow to heal and start generating its own life-giving blood cells.

That didn’t happen. But now that she is gone, that extra time she got feels even more precious.

“It didn’t cure her,” Ella says of the transfusions. “But it still gave her two extra years, and she talked about them as her bonus years.”

Rachel’s ‘duckit list’ and Ollie, the world’s most spoiled dog

Rachel made the most of the time given to her. She was one year in to a degree course at Aberdeen University when she received her leukaemia diagnosis.

Incredible smart and fiercely determined, Rachel graduated despite the constant disruption of chemotherapy, illness and a bone marrow transplant.

And she got most of the way through what she called her “duckit list”, a bucket list renamed for her love of ducks.

And most importantly, if not for the transfusions she wouldn’t have adopted her adored rescue dog Ollie.

James and Ruth Suddick with the family Labradors, including Ollie, left.

“He was honestly the most spoiled dog you’ve ever seen because she loved him so much,” says Ella, laughing again.

She adds: “There was so much Rachel did in that time and I think she was always quite reflective about that.”

A blood drive in Rachel’s memory

In honour of Rachel, and those bonus years, Rachel’s friends and family have organised a blood drive to encourage everyone to donate.

Launched on December 18, which would have been Rachel’s 23rd birthday, the drive focusses on the Inverness and Aberdeen Blood Donor Centres.

It is being held in partnership with charity Give Blood 4 Good, which works to give people like Rachel the transfusions they desperately need.

The blood drive for Rachel will focus on Aberdeen and Inverness. Image: Give Blood 4 Good

Ella hopes the blood drive will help fill much-needed reserves across the north and north-east. And she is proud that it will be done in honour of the best friend she will never forget.

“Everyone thinks this about the people they loved, but she was just so special,” says Ella. “It’s nice that people are getting to do this blood drive in her memory and save other people’s lives in her name, but also just to find out about who she was.”

‘She was just so intelligent’

Every time Rachel Suddick had her cell count checked, she played a game that for her was typically scientific.

“She would try to predict what the count would be,” says her father James. “She was rarely wrong.”

One of the ironies of Rachel’s disease was that she was studying pharmacology and immunology when diagnosed.

Rachel was able to extend her life because of the blood tranfusions. Image: Give Blood 4 Good

Her condition greatly expanded her knowledge of the science behind her sickness, something she used for academic gain.

Predicting her cell count wasn’t the only trick she pulled. When writing essays, she leaned on her own experiences.

“She was just so intelligent that she found it interesting what was happening to her,” says Ella. “I remember her writing essays about chemotherapy and joking that the source that she wanted to cite was herself.”

The ‘giddy’ loyal friend with the scientific mind

James says his daughter was always like this. Born in Raigmore hospital in Inverness, Rachel grew up in Nairn with James, mum Ruth, and younger siblings Abby and Andrew.

In her mid-teens she went to a science camp for girls interested in STEM subjects, an early indicator of the degree course she would eventually choose.

Florence from Florence & The Machine signing Rachel’s friend Jenny’s arm at a 2018 concert in Glasgow. Rachel is to the right of Jenny. Florence then drew a heart on Rachel’s collarbone that Rachel got tattooed. Image: Supplied by Ella Crowther

But Ella, who first met Rachel at that same science camp and who is now studying medicine, paints a slightly different picture of her friend; one that was clever, but who could also fool around and be giddy with excitement, never more so than when following her favourite band Florence & The Machine.

“She was just a really fun person to be around,” Ella says. “She could be quite silly. All of her friends, we teased her for being a bit chaotic.”

Rachel’s journey from leukaemia diagnosis to terminal

Rachel had just started her second year of university when she was diagnosed with AML. Just over 3,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with the aggressive form of blood every year, but is far more common in older people.

For someone of Rachel’s age to contract it was rare.

The cancer causes the amount of blood cells in the body to decrease, and in Rachel the first sign of its progress came when she started feeling tired and fatigued.

When a blood sample picked up an issue, she was referred to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and quickly diagnosed.

Rachel’s dad James at home in Nairn. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The chemotherapy started soon after and she had a bone marrow transplant. The blood transfusions were giving the bone marrow time to heal, and stop producing cancerous cells.

Rachel got the all clear from cancer three times. But not the fourth.

“There was a great deal of mixed fear and hope at the start,” recalls James. “She went into remission a number of times and, unfortunately, sooner or later, one of the bone marrow biopsies comes back that the cancer had returned.”

‘I’ve been through hell and back over and over’

Rachel returned home for end-of-life care in March this year.

In the Instagram blog she used to chart her many hospital visits and rounds of chemo, she wrote simply: “I’ve been through hell and back over and over and now I finally get a chance to just love life. And for that, I’m so grateful.”

She still had her duckit list to complete.

In April, just a month before she died, she went with four of her friends including Ella to see another of her favourite singers, Inverness’s Katie Gregson-MacLeod.

Rachel with her friends at the Katie Gregson-MacLeod concert in April. From left, Marth, Ella, Rachel, Emily and Yvonne. Image: Supplied by Ella Crowther

She even got to go backstage at Eden Court in Inverness to meet the star herself.

“To get the chance to be at a concert with her again and see live music, that was really special,” remembers Ella.

Memories and hard-won lessons

For those that loved Rachel, it was a heart-wrenching time.

“She was a young adult going through something that would have broken me long before,” James says. “All we could do was offer as much support as possible from the sidelines.”

Ella will always remember those last few months. As her own life continues, the lessons remain.

Rachel, left and Ella at a Florence & The Machine concert in Edinburgh in 2019. Image: Supplied by Ella Crowther

“The last piece Rachel wrote on Instagram was all about how she’d realised that the most important thing to her was being able to appreciate the little things in life and being able to spend time with the people that you love,” she says.

“And for all of us, it was important to see that what really mattered was to be with Rachel and for Rachel to be with us.

“And when it came down to it, that was what mattered more than anything else.”

To book your donation in memory of Rachel, please follow this link to pledge.