“Help at Hand for Leukemia Patients” ran the headline in the South China Morning Post on October 19, 1989, as Secretary for Health and Welfare Brian Chau Tak-hay announced the introduction of a bone-marrow transplant service at Queen Mary Hospital, in Pok Fu Lam, by mid-1990. A children’s facility would follow at Sha Tin’s Prince of Wales Hospital.

Leukaemia, a cancer “characterized by malignancies of white blood cells, either in the bone marrow, or in the lymphatic system”, had claimed the lives of more than 180 Hongkongers over the previous five years.

“The operation which has already dras­tically improved the chances of survival of thousands of leukemia sufferers around the world, involves replacing the bone marrow of the patient with that of a sibling. It can be performed only if the sibling has inherited the same genes as the patient,” explained the Post on December 16, 1989.

Remembering Hong Kong’s first kidney transplant

On May 14, 1990, the Queen Mary’s pioneering “J” block carried out its first operation.

“‘Simply luck’ was how the 26-year-old clerk described her successful bone marrow transplant at Queen Mary Hospital, the first in Hong Kong,” reported the Post on June 20, 1990. The patient, a woman who without the transplant had been deemed to have “zero chance” of survival, added, “I’m very happy because my brother gave me an opportunity to start a new life. I believe my chances are higher than 50 per cent.”

The fact there were no further news reports suggests her luck held.

On February 5, 1991, the Post reported, “The parents of the girl who is to receive Hong Kong’s first pediatric bone marrow transplant tomorrow are praying their daughter will come through and regain her health.” The 13-year-old, known as Ling-ling, was preparing to receive a transplant from her 19-year-old sister.

Three months after the surgery, on May 7, 1991, Ling-ling left hospital. The following day’s paper told the story of the girl, who would spend six to nine months in a sterilised flat with her older sibling as the “devoted sisters share a tough road to recovery.”