Sunderland University student Linzi defies the odds to graduate after three transplants - with a little help from her friend

A Sunderland University student who underwent three life-saving transplants is getting ready to graduate.

Monday, 18th February 2019, 9:49 am
Updated Monday, 18th February 2019, 10:02 am
Linzi Saunders and Kevin Rudkin

Twenty-one-year-old Linzi Saunders was struck down by leukaemia aged 18 months, and doctors gave her just a 40% chance of survival.

Today, as the Fine Art student prepares to pick up her degree, she has nominated fellow student and close friend Kevin Rudkin for one of the university's Rate Your Mate awards, which aim to shine a light on hard working students who go above and beyond in their studies, life and work.

Linzi Saunders with her parents James and Michelle

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Kevin, 20, has been a lifeline for Linzi as she juggled recovering from surgery with university work.

When she was diagnosed with two different complex types of leukaemia, medics decided they had no option but to try new research medication, and Linzi became the first patient to undergo this type of treatment.

It was then decided that a bone marrow transplant would be needed and all her family were tested to see if they would be possible donors.

Brother James proved a perfect match but, despite a successful transplant, the new treatment Linzi was receiving began affecting her heart and she went on to develop cardiomyopathy by the age of eight.

Linzi after her heart transplant

It was a condition doctors could not ignore and while still a pupil at Ryhope Junior School, Linzi was told she would need a new heart.

Put onto the NHS Organ Donor Register, she waited five weeks before being told that a donor heart had been found.

Linzi said: "I went into Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital on December 4, 2005, for the operation. I don’t remember a huge amount about it."

While mum Michelle, 50, and dad James, 53, waited by her bedside, Linzi astounded doctors by making a speedy recovery, returning back to her Ryhope home on December 23.

Linzi's painting of herself after her operation

"I remember I felt better quite quickly," said Linzi. "I don’t like doing nothing, and it’s quite hard for me to sit still."

Despite her fightback, Linzi would go on to miss much of Year 4 at school as she attended regular hospital appointments so specialists could keep a check on her.

Refusing to be limited by her condition, she continued with her school work and impressed everyone with her fighting spirit, even taking part in the Transplant Games.

But in 2014 Linzi developed the Norovirus which had a huge impact on her already weak kidneys.

Linzi Saunders with kidney donor Linda Taylor

"I was put back on the NHS Organ Donor Register and it took a few years for everything to get sorted. Again, they tested members of my family to see if there was anyone who might match," she said.

Linda Taylor, the mother-in-law of one of Linzi’s sisters, also agreed to be tested - and turned out to be an ideal match.

On September 21, 2017, Linzi underwent her third transplant, again at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, by which time she had met Kevin on their Fine Art programme.

He has supported her, keeping her spirits up and assisting when she needs a wheelchair to get about.

"When I first met Kevin we just clicked and, for some reason, he took it upon himself to help me. He would carry my bags, get me my lunch, when I missed lectures he would bring me up to speed," she said.

"After the kidney transplant, I had a lot of steroids and this affected my legs and my ability to walk, so Kevin’s always been there to help me get about."

Linzi as a toddler

Modest Kevin, from Hendon in Sunderland, says Linzi is a real inspiration: "Even just after the surgery, she was so active. I knew she was poorly but she never complained and she never let it get her down," he said.

The friends are now considering undertaking an MA in Fine Art after graduating.

As part of her art degree, Linzi recreated a photograph of herself taken following her heart transplant surgery.

Linzi remains on 21 different tablets each day – but is determined Kevin should have some acknowledgement for his kindness.