My Life as a Dog

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stem Cell Donation - 2002

For a long time now I have been meaning to write up my experience as a stem cell donor. Today as I was thumbing through a stack of photos (before we went digital), I found a bunch of photos from that time. And it awakened my desire to write about it. This account as best as I can recall the story. And since it happened over six years ago, there may be some missing pieces or facts that I don’t have quite correct. If you are aware of any errors please let me know.

In the summer of 2002 my oldest sister and her husband were living in Flagstaff, Arizona. They were in the process of building a home and my brother-in-law lost his job. Shortly after that my sister had gone in to see the doctor because of a sore lump on her hip. She was quickly diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and it was fast growing.

Early on when they considered treatments, one of the options was to receive a stem cell transplant. The doctors indicated that a sibling would be the best donor if one of us was a match. So all five of us were tested but only two of us were matches. I shouldn’t really say only because to have two matches was really a great percentage. I and my youngest sister were both matches. Since my youngest sister works in a hospital and had done that for years, she had probably been exposed to illnesses which made her a less desirable donor. The doctors also said that it would actually be better to have a male donor so that they could track how well it was working. A male donor would be easier to track in a female because of the Y chromosome.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. In order to even have a need for a stem cell donor, they first were going to have to kill my sister’s immune system. She was treated with two different cocktails of chemotherapy and neither of them was working all that well. It was during the second type of chemo that my brother and I traveled down to visit. After all we were not sure what was going to happen to her and things were not looking good at the time. We got there after my other two sisters and my niece had been there helping take care of her and she was in the hospital for another dose of chemo. I remember during this time I would look at her and it would just make me sad. I don’t know if it was from the chemo or the pain meds or what but I would look in her and eyes and I could tell that she just wasn’t even there. Much later we talked to her about our visit and she really had no recollection that we were even there. All of this was going on while they lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment, were building a home, and were out of work. It was a lot to handle all at once. They didn’t have room for us to stay with them at the apartment, so we stayed in town at a motel. (And that is an entire story all on it’s own!)

When we left Flagstaff, I wasn’t feeling really hopeful. She was in so much pain and it seemed that the chemo just wasn’t going to work for her. But it wasn’t too long after getting home that the doctors put her on a third cocktail of chemo. They were not hopeful and shared that fact with the family. So everyone was pretty surprised when the third kind did the trick. Finally her cancer was responding to the treatment!

A few weeks later, I flew down to Phoenix where she and her family picked me up and we headed Tucson where she would receive the stem cell transplant. I needed to go down for tests to make sure that I was healthy enough to donate and she was down for other tests as well. They ran a battery of tests on me and they all came out just fine. So I was all set to donate. The doctor commented on how clean my tests were and how unusual that was too for someone of my age. (I was 34 at the time.) They also mentioned that from my heart rate that I must be an athlete. That was the only time I have been confused like that!

I flew home to Utah and just waited until the I heard the news that they were ready for me. My youngest sister scheduled a stay at a condo in Tucson for myself, my parents, herself, and her daughter to stay during the time of the donation. My oldest sister and her family were staying a facility provided by the hospital. We knew that we would be there for a week. I was at a fairly new job but the guys I worked with were so good. They told me just to take as much time as I needed. It was so nice not to have to worry about that too.

It was December by the time we all got down to Tucson. We met with the doctors initially to go over any questions and find out what exactly we needed to do. My part began by getting Neupogen injections twice every day. I received these shots to build up the stem cells in my blood stream. The side effect of that is that you begin to ache. They said it would make you feel like you had the flu, which was true only magnified several times. Fortunately they gave me a little Percoset to deal with that and it did the job.

Before I could donate they also wanted to check my veins. After all they might need to poke them several days in a row. It was decided that the best route would be to install a catheter in my neck rather than trying to find an available vein each day. It was a little funny because in the process of inserting a catheter they needed to give me an IV. They poked both arms several times and finally decided to call in the expert who put it in the top of my hand.

With the catheter in place, I was all set. Meanwhile the chemo was working great on my sister and they were about ready to harvest the stem cells. It ended up that I needed to donate for two days. What they did is this, I would go into the hospital and recline in a big chair and they would hook up this machine to my newly installed catheter. They would then cycle my blood out through the catheter into the machine that could separate the stem cells, clean the blood, and then it would go back into my veins. The first day I think I spent 4 hours sitting there doing it but the next day didn’t take as long to get the amount needed. When I was done and looked at the bag it sure didn’t look like much of anything but it was apparently just what she needed.

The next day, the chemo had done it’s job and my sister was largely without an immune system. They gave her an IV with the collected stem cells just like she was receiving blood. They didn’t give her the entire amount that they collected just in case they needed to give her some later. It’s been a long and bump road for her ever since the cancer. But overall she seems to be doing very well. After all it’s over six years later and we still have her around.

The doctors said that in a lot of time cases can’t find a donor or that family are unwilling to even be tested. For me, it was such an easy thing and any one of my siblings would gladly have done it. I’m glad that I was able to help and that it worked so well.