In February 2021, 68-year-old Jonathan experienced a painful cramp in his foot while on a long walk around Sydney Harbour. Because it seemed to affect the movement of his foot, he made an appointment to see a physiotherapist.
Recently retired after 35 years of teaching history, Jonathan was looking forward to enjoying retirement with his wife Ruth, five married daughters and 10 grandchildren. He had plans to continue writing and participating in academic conferences around the world and visiting his daughters in the UK and Europe once COVID-19 travel restrictions eased.
When the physiotherapist was unable to work out the root cause of Jonathan’s pain, she advised him to visit his GP for a referral. The GP requested that Jonathan get an MRI of his spine and provided him with a referral to see a spinal surgeon. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, medical help was remote and limited, as it was not until August 2021 that Jonathan met with the spinal surgeon via teleconference and received a referral to see a neurologist at Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH).
In October 2021, Jonathan was seen physically by neurologist Dr John Parratt, who commenced extensive investigations, and found him to have motor neurone damage. At this point Jonathan had several other disturbing symptoms including slurring of speech, difficulty swallowing, and intellectual decline, so he and Ruth knew it was something serious.
Still without a definitive diagnosis, Jonathan received monthly gamma globulin infusions for five months that seemed to slow the progression of his condition. However, his altered speech alarmed his daughters during video calls so much so that they each made the decision to travel from the UK during COVID-19 to be by their parents’ side.
Ruth recalls, “Our daughters dropped everything to be with him, and it was the first family Christmas we’d had all together in a long time which put a smile on Jonathan’s face.”
In March 2022, Dr Parratt told Jonathan that a rogue antibody level had been found in his blood results and that he had referred him to Professor Ian Kerridge, a staff haematologist and bone marrow transplant physician at RNSH. With this glimmer of hope, Jonathan and Ruth went away on a break to Copacabana to wait for news of a space in Professor Kerridge’s schedule. It came the next day in the form of a phone call, arranging an immediate appointment.
“We were immediately impressed with Professor Kerridge. His direct, encouraging and thorough manner with Jonathan, despite his speech difficulties, instilled hope and a feeling that somebody cared. He immediately arranged a bone marrow biopsy, several other scans and also had Jonathan commence a plasma exchange (apheresis) that same afternoon. At our next appointment a couple of days later, his first words were: ‘We have a diagnosis.’”
Jonathan was diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia, a rare, indolent form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that can sometimes cause motor nerve damage. Although there is no cure, it can usually be controlled with treatment, and under the care of Professor Kerridge and his team at RNSH, Jonathan immediately started a six-month course of chemotherapy with plasma exchanges before new cycles. He was also referred to see speech pathologist Jessica Tan.
“I have never known anyone so pleased to receive a cancer diagnosis. It was such a relief for us all after so many months of watching his decline and not knowing what was wrong with him,” said Ruth.
Now near the end of his six-month course of chemotherapy, some of Jonathan’s symptoms have improved since receiving care from Professor Kerridge and his team – Jonathan can now write again, and his family say that his overall outlook on life has improved significantly. He has now been referred for an intensive rehabilitation program and will always require medication and monitoring to prevent relapse.
“As a non-medical person, Jonathan has a great respect for Professor Kerridge’s love of continuous learning and his approach to treating the complete person compassionately. He noticed early on that he had an ethics degree from Cambridge University. With many visits to Cambridge, and three daughters who have studied there and also at Oxford himself, they could connect on that experience,” said Ruth.
Ruth sat by her husband’s side during his treatment in the Apheresis Unit and remembers the genuine kindness and compassion practiced by all the healthcare professionals involved in Jonathan’s care.
“Although we can’t name all the nurses at the Apheresis Unit who took Jonathan under their wing, the way that they have been so gentle in inserting the cannulas and talking him through the process has been beyond exceptional.”
Grateful for the care their father has received from Professor Kerridge, Jonathan and Ruth’s daughters, Johanna, Catherine, Susannah, Esther and Rebekah decided to fundraise to help the Apheresis Unit at RNSH. They set up a fundraising page with a goal of raising $10,000 and recently participated in the 2022 City2Surf with runners and several babies in prams, exceeding their target.
At the NORTH Foundation, we believe that our community plays an important role in ensuring that we are able to support our hospitals and medical research, and we want to thank the Harris family for their generosity and continued support to help improve outcomes for future patients.
Visit our community fundraising page to learn more about how you can get involved with us as a fundraiser and make a difference.