It's been about 5 months since my stem cell donation, and there hasn't been a day that the process and the patient don't cross my mind.
The stem cell donation process is one that takes quite a bit of preparation, even after being identified as a match. In addition to multiple tests for weeks leading up to the collection of the cells, I was given daily injections of a growth hormone called Filgrastim for 5 days. What this drug does is it allows for the bone marrow and stem cells to multiply at an amazing rate, resulting in more cells for the transplant. I was warned about the potential side-effects, but I honestly wasn't prepared for it! When people ask me to describe the pain, I would compare it to waking up with very sore bones, and with each passing hour the pain increased until ultimately, I was barely able to walk. The pain in my hips, lower back and femurs was the worst because this is where the highest concentration of bone marrow is found. The pain is caused by the growing of excess stem cells, crammed inside of your bones; so it feels like they are expanding from the inside out! I am small, and the amount of filgrastim that I was given was the lowest dosage, but still the appropriate amount for someone weighing 30 lbs more than me. I'm aware that not everyone has such severe side-effects, so please don't let this scare you. Besides, I would do it again in a heartbeat! (Maybe next time with the help of some pain killers, though!)
The date of the stem cell transplant was an exciting one because so much time and energy was leading up to this moment. I was given the opportunity to write a letter to the patient, without sharing too much personal or identifying information about myself. It felt like writing to a special pen pal, and feeling that we had this unbelievable bond to each other without even knowing his name or even having ever met. Each country has their own rules about disclosing certain information about the donor and recipient, and because he is in Europe, I will have to wait about another year before knowing if the patient would like to connect with me. I certainly hope so!
The machine used to collect the stem cells from my blood is similar to a diaysis, in that it takes blood from one arm, passes it through the machine to extract the stem cells and brings back the remaining blood into my body through the other arm. The entire collection process took about 7.5 hours. It took longer than expected because the PBSC (Peripheral Blood Stem Cell) machine could only run at a slow speed, because of my size. If it ran any quicker, it would cause my body to go into shock. The nurses were so sweet and explained the entire process to me, which calmed my nerves, especially when I started to feel like my whole body was tingling and going numb. The reason this happens is that the body looses calcium during this process, so as a sign, your lips start to tingle, then nose and then everything feels like its vibrating. It got to the point where I thought I might vibrate off the table! I remember telling my husband, Jonathan, to feel my head because I even felt like the hair on my head was vibrating! SO VERY WEIRD!
If you want to read more about the mechanics of the actual transplant,
I found this link to have a lot of information: http://pbsc-transplant.cancertreatment.net/
Driving home from donating my stem cells was comparable to finishing a marathon; I was exhausted and exhilarated at the same time! The recovery was very quick after donating, since the excess stem cells had been removed from my bloodstream, I immediately felt relief and found I was completely recovered 5 days after the donation.
I was told by the amazing staff of Be The Match in City of Hope that I would have an update from the patient 6 months after the transplant. I thought to myself, "Wow, it'll be right around my birthday. I hope my gift this year is good news."
Well, my birthday present came early and IS fantastic news! The young, 26 year old patient which had been battling Leukemia for many years, is back at home and doing well! HURRAY!!! I love happy endings, and hopefully for this young man, this is just a happy beginning!
I still can't eloquently put into words the amount of joy, strength, compassion, and love this whole process has allowed for me to experience. A process, which required to give so little time and energy, saved a life. BOOM! Think about it? I sincerely hope my story has encouraged you to add your name to the registry, and to step up to the plate if you are called to donate to someone that ONLY you could save. A modern day super hero, and we all have that super power!
If you have questions about the process, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment below.