EXCLUSIVE: the story of a brave Rotherham man who donated his brain to medical science

Aaron Wood was just 24 when he died of a rare terminal brain tumour. But if you thought the story ended there you’d be wrong. His family are now respecting his determination to help others by donating his brain to medical science.

They hope his contribution to a UK-wide “brain bank” will help medical experts to prevent others suffering his premature fate, leaving a legacy not just of science, but of love.

His generous gesture attracted local headlines when it was announced shortly after his death at the end of last year, but his mother Crystal has now been telling Aaron’s full story to JUS News for the first time…

Aaron lived in Rotherham with his parents and his younger sister Emily. Crystal was American and his father Richard was English. As a result, his favourite treats were Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups and English gravy.

Crystal found out she was pregnant with Aaron at 19, at a time in her life when she wasn’t sure what lay ahead. She said Aaron came along and gave her direction and that he saved her life.

“He was… it might sound a bit impartial, but he was amazing,” she said “He was friendly, he was always outgoing, always the life of the party. Through everything he was always very worried about everybody else rather than himself.”

Outside of time with his family, Aaron had two great loves – squash and guitar. Though thankfully never at the same time.

“He learned to play Jimi Hendrix at his grandma’s request. He learned to play Stairway to Heaven and a little bit more Zeppelin upon my request,” said Crystal. But his real passion was squash.

He told friends on his first day at the University of Essex that he’d be squash club president one day. Aaron was true to his word.

Aaron hoists up his trophies

He decided to study philosophy at university, something his mother said helped him come to terms with his diagnosis.

He had settled back at home for the Christmas break when his family’s life would change forever. Whilst enjoying pizza with his friends and family, Aaron froze and his body went completely rigid and he began choking. He had suffered a seizure and paramedics were called to his home.

After an MRI scan Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2012.  Despite being devastated by the news, his first thought was of university and he pleaded with surgeons to delay his operation so he too could complete his exams and graduate. His surgeon allowed this but sadly Aaron had to return earlier than planned for his operation after suffering a second seizure.

It wasn’t until after the operation Aaron was told it had been cancerous. He told his parents he would be returning for his university’s  summer ball as soon as the staples were out. Crystal remarked that friends were surprised to see Aaron’s shaved head after he used to spend “more time on his hair than a teenage girl”.

Aaron poses with his sister Emily.

After the ball he started radiotherapy every day for six weeks. Without fail after every session Aaron would return to the squash courts and have a brief practice. He said: “Well mom I have to keep my fitness up don’t I !” then he’d come home to catch up with Wimbledon and still beat his mother at Wii tennis.

When Aaron was told he’d have to delay his graduation for treatment, his university offered him an honorary third but he told them: “No, I know I can do better than that”.  He repeated his entire third year after treatment and came out with a 2:1.

“It was probably one of the proudest moments of my life as a mother and one of his proudest moments because he had gone through so much to get to that point,” said Crystal.

Aaron’s graduation day

 

Sadly, despite the surgeries and further months of chemotherapy and steroid treatments, in September 2016 Aaron was given a terminal diagnosis.  He had anaplastic astrocytoma, a rare form of brain cancer.

From this point Aaron decided two things: that he would live life to its fullest, and that he wanted his brain to be donated to medical science. “That was Aaron, always thinking of how he could help others right til the end,” said Crystal.

Aaron also made an incredibly difficult decision: that he would not receive any more end-of-life treatments, and that he would now enjoy whatever time he had left with those who mattered most to him. Aaron’s close friends came up and stayed almost every weekend and one friend even moved back from Sweden to be with Aaron.

Sitting down with his mother, he said: “I’m at peace mom, for the first time I’m at peace”.

When she asked why, he replied “for the first time I have an answer. we have an answer. It’s not the answer that we wanted but I have an answer and the thought of not ever having to have chemotherapy again couldn’t make me feel any better right now.”

Aaron with his sister Emily

Aaron made the tough decision to reach out to his wide circle of friends in a touching Facebook post in which he described chemotherapy as being at times”worse than death” and that he no longer wanted this for his life. He also coined a new motto: “All you need is love”.

Crystal said Aaron’s release from chemotherapy also freed his from a strict dietary restriction that meant he couldn’t eat his beloved gravy.

“After he stopped his treatments friends of Aaron asked if he’d like a straw for all the gravy.  After his treatments ended he just could have whatever he wanted again so naturally he was in heaven,” said Crystal.

Aaron spent weeks making the most of time with friends, but one unforgettable memory his family cherish is their trip to Scotland, even if Aaron insisted on a mythical quest to find Nessie.

With his family Aaron stayed in the foothills of Ben Nevis, despite weeks of tropical storms for one week there was not a cloud in the sky.

Aaron with Crystal at Fort Augusta

“He couldn’t  stop talking about Nessie, of course you can’t go to Scotland without going to Loch Ness, so we drove up to Loch Ness. He’s just, right at the edge of the water, some place he just decided to sit down and the way he was just sat looking over the water which was like glass it was like Aaron to a T. He was just sat looking over the water like he was at peace”

Three months to the day after his diagnosis, Aaron’s condition took a turn for the worse. He’d kissed his mother goodbye and said the  last words he’d speak to her: “I love you Momma”.

When she returned later Aaron’s breathing slowed and he passed away peacefully by her side.

When the many corners of Aaron’s life came together for his funeral, Crystal says she realised that he’s been consistent to every person he met, he was the same Aaron. Friends spoke of how he’d got them through university, how they’d inspired them to go to medical school and all spoke of how Aaron changed their lives for the better.

Whilst Crystal often asks “What now?” she says she has drawn comfort from the love of Aaron’s friends who keep in touch constantly. She also reads over the messages they left for him and draws strength from times where she is able to meet them on the squash courts.

Aaron with his mother and Father

“He never let anyone sit at the back of a room and not partake in either a party or whatever was going on. He always wanted everyone to be involved. Two months later and I read through those posts quite often and I couldn’t be more proud. As for Aaron’s friends, well lets just say Emily has a lot of older brothers now that’s for sure,” said Crystal.

Aaron leaves both a legacy of love and one of science. After his death it was decided that his brain would stay in Sheffield where he had been receiving treatment. His brain has been registered in the UK Brain Bank and will be studied by scientists fighting cancer and looking for treatments for anaplastic astrocytoma.  A doctor has told Crystal that universities very rarely receive intact brains, and that Aarons’ gesture could be very significant.

Coming to terms with her son’s passing has been a process for Crystal and her family, but her mantlepiece is filled with pictures of his smiling face.

In a final word Aaron’s mother said she would urge people to fund raise for UK Cancer charities like Clicsargent and Macmillan and Brain Tumour research. All charities which have helped Aaron and others suffering from the disease.

Hannah Dodd

Print Journalist. Lit graduate in a past life, crafter always. Forge screen contributor, Empire magazine if your reading this give me a job.