Publish date: 21 July 2022

Sarah, Duchess of York, and Their Royal Highnesses Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie met with staff and young people in a video call to formally open the specialist haematology ward for young adults in the University College Hospital Grafton Way Building last week (Monday 11 July).

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Young people, staff and Teenage Cancer Trust supporters along with Sarah, Duchess of York, and Their Royal Highnesses Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie at the ward opening

COVID remains a serious risk to those undergoing treatment for blood cancer, making an in-person celebration on the ward impossible. But the trio, who are Honorary Patrons of the charity Teenage Cancer Trust, were determined not to let the achievements of those involved in the ward’s creation pass unmarked - and took part in the virtual opening via video call.

Teenage Cancer Trust and investment bank Morgan Stanley donated money to UCLH to create a social space for young people to enjoy during their stay on the new blood cancer ward. It also paid for interior design features in corridors and rooms to create a more homely environment, and upgraded furniture, like recliners, to make their stay more comfortable.

On the video call, Sarah, Duchess of York, and the Princesses talked to two young people about their experience of blood cancer and being treated at UCLH. Also joining the opening ceremony were Vanessa Sweeney, UCLH’s acting Chief Nurse, along with nursing colleagues - Lisa McMonagle, Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse Consultant, Gaby Levey, Teenage Cancer Trust Interim Young Adult Clinical Lead Nurse, and the Deputy Sister on the new ward and Claire Painter, Deputy Chief Nurse.

In a film of the event, Ward Manager Kerry White took centre stage and cut the ceremonial ribbon to help officially open the new haematology ward.

UCLH acting chief nurse Vanessa Sweeney said: “After many years in the planning, and more in the construction, it is fantastic to have the new haematology ward. We are extremely grateful to the Teenage Cancer Trust and their support makes a huge difference to our patients. UCLH has worked with the charity for many years and together we have improved the care of young people with cancer.”

Nella Pignatelli, 23, from North London was diagnosed with B-cell acute leukaemia in July 2021 aged 22. She shared how she only found out she had cancer after an unrelated blood test.

Nella explains: “Three years ago my Dad died suddenly of a heart attack. Last year I went to my GP as his death made me realise the importance of health checks and had a blood test done. When the results came back the doctor called and asked, ‘are you functioning?’ It was found that my bone marrow cells were 95% cancerous and if it had been left much longer, I could have died. I had the blood test on my Dad’s birthday, and I think he must have been looking out for me. 

“Being transferred to UCLH from my local hospital and being supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust team there has made such a difference to my life - and I was so proud to be part of the event.”

Filmmaker Michelle Rowe, 23, from Billericay was diagnosed with was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 20. On the call she described the years of treatment she’s endured, and how she’s relapsed three times. 

Earlier this year following a stem cell transplant, she spent 10-weeks as an inpatient at UCLH, isolated in her room. Michelle is grateful that facilities in the new Grafton Way building meant that her partner Hannah and her mum and dad were able to stay with her during treatment, on weekly rotation. 

Michelle explains: “I had to have my medication through an IV line and my body didn’t know where to put the water – I swelled up from 55kg to 77kg in the space of a week and could barely breathe, the water collected in random parts of my body including my lungs.

“I couldn’t have coped with that without the support of my loved ones. And my Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse Gaby and Youth Support Coordinator Marlies have been amazing too.”

Sarah, Duchess of York, said: “This is a special charity that’s so very close to my heart. Cancer doesn’t just devastate a young person’s health. It threatens to take away everything they care about – their identity, their independence, and their dreams. Teenage Cancer Trust’s specialist nurses and youth workers provide the very best care and support during treatment and beyond, making sure that cancer doesn’t stop young people living their lives.

“I opened the first Teenage Cancer Trust unit for young people in London in 1990, and 32 years later, to be here with my daughters, helping to open this new blood cancer ward at UCLH, is truly remarkable. We are all honoured to be a part of this incredible charity.”