Published on 18 February 2019
In the 21 years of her life, University of Sunderland student Linzi Saunders has had her life saved three times thanks to transplant surgery.
Struck down by leukaemia aged 18-months, doctors gave her just a 40% chance of survival.
But Linzi has never been one to give up.
Today, as the Fine Art student prepares to graduate, she has nominated fellow student and close friend Kevin Rudkin for a Rate Your Mate award. The awards aim to shine a light on hard working students who go above and beyond in their studies, life and work while at the University.
And that’s exactly what Kevin, 20, has done for Linzi, proving a lifeline as she juggled recovering from surgery with university work.
Linzi’s remarkable story starts not long after she was born. Diagnosed with two different complex types of leukaemia, medics decided they had no option but to try new research medication, with Linzi becoming the first patient to undergo this type of treatment.
It was then decided that a bone marrow transplant would be needed and all Linzi’s family were tested to see if they would be possible donors.
Her 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.
It was a condition doctors could not ignore and while still a pupil at Ryhope Junior School in Sunderland, 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.
“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.
Never one to sit around, Linzi refused to be limited by her condition, she continued with her school work and impressed everyone with her fighting spirit.
But in 2014 Linzi developed the Norovirus which had a huge impact on her already weak kidneys.
It was a blow medics could not ignore as Linzi’s kidneys were only operating at 42% due to the treatment she had received as a baby.
Linzi said: “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.”
In a bizarre twist of fate, the mum-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 this time she had met friend Kevin Rudkin.
The pair are today in final year of their Fine Art programme and will graduate in the summer. For the past few years, Kevin has always been there for Linzi, supporting her, keeping her spirits up and assisting when she needed a wheelchair to get about.
Linzi said: “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.
“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.”
Modest Kevin, from Hendon in Sunderland, says Linzi is a real inspiration.
He added: “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.”
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.
For the time being, Linzi remains on 21 different tablets each day – but she’s not going to let that get her down and she’s determined Kevin should have some acknowledgement for his kindness.
Any student who would like to nominate their friend can email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what makes your mate amazing.