How one terminally ill woman is raising millions ringing church bells
17 February 2017 • 7:00am
Last December, Julie McDonnell received a knock at the door of her Hastings home. It was a man; friendly in a brusque, bureaucratic sort of way and with a checklist to complete. “He said he wanted to take a look at my living arrangements before I went into a hospice,” the 49-year-old says. “We didn’t know anything about it at all. Apparently it was some NHS computer somewhere saying that I was about to die.” The computer, needless to say, had it wrong. A few months on and the bell still hasn’t tolled for Julie McDonnell. Well, not that one at least. McDonnell, a high-ranking Middle East expert in British military intelligence, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in 2015. She was advised by her consultant to accelerate plans to marry her now husband, Andy, and warned she was due to begin a highly aggressive treatment programme. By December 2015, she was told, her illness was terminal. To compound that diagnosis, a few months later a scan revealed a dark shadow on the front of her head which turned out to be a brain tumour. Then, last November, McDonnell discovered she had cervical cancer. “This isn’t a very cheerful story is it?” the mother-of-one breezily says as we meet in St George’s Church in Brede, Sussex. “I haven’t got a chance according to them.”
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But it is not in Julie McDonnell’s nature to wallow. From the moment she received her leukaemia diagnosis she has dedicated herself to raising money for charity. She has chosen an unlikely medium – ringing church bells – but so far secured a staggering £7m and rising. In total, over the past year, McDonnell estimates she has managed 151 quarter peals in church towers across Britain (each requiring huge physical effort). Last week a 51-year-old bell ringer at Worcester Cathedral fractured a bone in his back after getting his foot caught in a rope and dragged 80ft up the church tower. It is a gruelling – and even risky - activity. On one occasion during her treatment, McDonnell rang 10 different peals in a day. A special peal devised by a fellow ringer called “Julie McDonnell Doubles” has also been rung by nearly 3,000 different ringers across the world. On the way she has gained the support of rock stars (Paul McCartney is rumoured, although McDonnell’s lips are sealed) billionaires and some of the square mile’s biggest cheeses. Bells have rung out for her in cathedrals across the world, including last month at St Paul’s and on March 17 at Westminster Abbey (a privilege normally reserved for members of the Royal family). Oh, and the Dalai Lama and the Pope have praised her work, too. Not that McDonnell feels comfortable in such sanctified company. She still speaks in the matter-of-fact manner of the British military. “I’m not a nice person,” she insists. “The thing is I’m doing this as a way of ignoring what’s wrong with me. I’m frightened that if I lie down I’m not going to get up again.”
She speaks of the disease with an air of weary familiarity. For this is the third time in Julie’s life that she has been diagnosed with leukaemia. The disease first struck when she was 16-years-old growing up in a village in Northamptonshire. “I don’t think I understood it to be honest,” she says. “I was poorly but my family kept things from me. If I had that now I could have easily coped compared to this.” She recovered in a matter of months and still secured a place at Oxford University to read Egyptology. A talented linguist, she picked up Arabic during her studies and after completing a PhD joined the military.
The leukaemia returned following the birth of her daughter, Rebekah (to a previous partner) in 1991. “They say it’s the stress on your body that makes it come back,” says McDonnell. Even that time, though, she was only off work for four months. The most recent leukaemia diagnosis, in June 2015, has been the most brutal of the lot. She discovered she had the disease around the same time as the sudden death of the mother of her then partner Andy (who works for Thames Valley Police). “We sat with the vicar here and he said I can marry you very quickly,” she says. Their wedding was arranged the following month by the locals of Brede with a marquee erected next to the church. “It was beautiful,” says McDonnell, “like something out of the Darling Buds of May. The bit of the vow I stumbled over was ‘in sickness and in health’. It really hit home then.”
They started attending St George’s in Brede when they moved to Sussex a few years ago. Julie says she had briefly taken up bell ringing as a child and “loathed” it but got roped in to giving it another go on the peal of six bells in the church tower. It was here where she came up with the idea to start ringing church bells to campaign against better treatments for cancer. In July 2016, NHS England announced it was no longer funding second stem cell transplants for patients with blood cancers. Over the course of her treatment, McDonnell has received two stem cell transplants – the second privately funded – and she wanted to raise money to ensure that others who could not afford to pay can still have the operation. Last June, just a few days after her second stem cell transplant, Julie arranged a bell ringing walk along the Pilgrim’s Way between Wye in Kent and Canterbury Cathedral.
By the end of 2016 she had raised £7.2m to help directly fund second stem cell transplants and care for blood cancer patients. At times, Andy tells me, he has been forced to drag his wife away from the church towers. “I think her middle name is mule,” he says.
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In spite of her constant agony – for the duration of our interview, McDonnell stands close to an old metal radiator in the nave of St George’s, the pain in her back making it too painful to sit – she tells me the cancer has given her a gift. “I never used to notice how pretty flowers were. I do now. I appreciate all I see.” It’s that attitude, along with the outpouring of love of so many family and friends, that has kept her going. The day we meet, she is house-hunting with Andy to buy a home closer to the church, as she refuses to let her death sentence define her. However, she quietly admits, she is afraid. “There have been moments where I thought I was totally on my own,” she says. …And then we are interrupted by her phone ringing. Julie checks the number and puts the phone back in her pocket without answering. “It’s the hospital,” she says. “And I don’t need to be told how I feel today.” To donate to Julie's charity...