how easy it is…(Stem Cell Donation) – Part 2

Okay. Here we are, back to the story. Click Here to read Part 1.

If you’re just getting to this story, you might want to catch up by reviewing these posts (there’s a lot more you’ve missed, but this will give you the main points of the story). The complete list of posts is available here, as I’ve tagged them all with the same category name.

Here are the highlights, in order:

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When I left off on Part 1, I had just slept 10 hours in the hotel, getting ready for Day 5, the “Donation Day.”

Day 5.

We woke up early, knowing that we were going to be met in the hotel lobby at 7:00 am to walk over to the hospital for the donation. I got up and dressed in my best yoga pants (!), preparing for the likelihood that I would be in a hospital bed unable to get up or move for most of the day. We walked down to the lobby and over to Starbucks, where I tried to eat some oatmeal and drink some juice, but my nervous stomach wanted nothing to do with it. So I sipped on the juice, nibbled on the oatmeal, and tried not to think about anything. (It didn’t work.)

Promptly at 7:00 am, a nurse from the hospital walked into the lobby, picked up me and my husband, and also another man waiting in the lobby. It turns out he was coming in that day to donate bone marrow. The nurse walked him to another part of the hospital while we waited, and then took us upstairs to get ready. In a small room, I met with the doctor who would be overseeing my procedure. She then gave me my last two shots of filgrastim. Then, the nurse inserted a needle into my left forearm and drew a few more vials of blood, while the doctor worked on distracting me by showing me things out the window (she knew I was nervous I’d get sick since I threw up the last time they had drawn blood…). Then, using the same needle he had used to draw blood, he connected an IV saline drip and I was set.

We then walked downstairs, to the actual donation room. I’ll admit, it was underwhelming. Three beds lined up, each next to an apheresis machine. The apherisis machine is a machine that draws blood from a donor, then separates out the “desired” portion of the blood (in this case it is stem cells) and returns the rest of the blood to the body. I was justifiably nervous about this part. Having never experienced it before, I was not sure what to expect, or how I would react.

As the extra liter of fluids continued to drip into me, I made sure to hit the restroom one last time (this would be the second time since reaching the hospital, but it made no difference…I’ll explain later). Then the nurse in the donation room started to hook me up to the machine. In order to draw my blood, she had to insert another needle, this time in my right arm, inside my elbow. And oddly enough, I was completely calm.

Before I knew it, she had connected all the tubes, and she turned on the machine. I watched my blood flow up the tube across my chest, and felt, well, nothing. Really. I watched my blood flow out of my body and did not, for a second, feel ill. That alone amazed me.

After the process started, I knew I was in for a long wait. I was not going to be able to move my right arm until the procedure had completed – and I had been told to prepare for 6-8 hours in that bed. So, of course, about 20 minutes after the procedure started, I started to feel like I had to pee. I tried to hold it as long as I could, but they had already started the second liter of saline in my IV, and my body just can’t handle that much fluid. So, how exactly does one go to the bathroom when you can’t get out of bed or move your right arm? It’s quite lovely. It’s this fantastic contraption called a bedpan.

There you have it, folks. The bedpan was the most exciting part of the donation process. The most difficult too. Have you ever tried to put on your pants with one hand while lying in bed? Without moving the other arm? It’s almost impossible. And guess what? I got to do it twice. Apparently they were so impressed by my ability to NOT hold fluids that they continued to pump me full of them. Fun stuff.

The only other remotely exciting part of the process was when the machine would start to beep at me. You see, if it isn’t drawing blood well enough, it beeps to alert the nurse. Then she would come over, check the machine, and if it wouldn’t resolve, she’d have to adjust the needle in my arm, the angle of the bed, or the position of my arm. This happened quite a few times, and so I ended up almost flat on my back with my arm in a very particular position in order to make the machine happy.

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The rest of the process involved me watching daytime TV, including shows I would never watch if at home. I also read most of an amazing book – Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. This book was so good that I read it late into the night the next evening and woke up early the next morning and read some more. I highly recommend it. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, “There is no way I could make up this story, and yet it’s true!” I promise, runners and WWII buffs alike (and I am both of those) will enjoy it. I literally could not put it down until I finished it, and it was a long book.

Although I prepared for 6-8 hours of donation, I was actually done in a little over 5. Surprisingly enough, my body was really good at making stem cells, so there were plenty of them to harvest. I felt great at the end of it all, too. I watched the nurse shut off the machine and get my stem cells ready to send to the patient. As she was labeling and sealing up the stem cells, she told me that immediately after she had them ready, that someone would be by to pick them up. Then, a person escorts them directly to the patient (the same person stays with them until they are delivered to the patient). They were to be given to the patient within 24 hours. This was when it really hit me that it had happened, and I cried a bit. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a lady came by to pick them up and get them on their way.

Before they took the stem cells, my husband took a picture of me with them. See that bag of cranberry-colored stuff on my chest? Those are my stem cells, ready to be transplanted. In the back of the picture you can see the apheresis machine.

After the donation!

After the donation!

After I ate some food and got my instructions, we were discharged and got back to the hotel around 4 pm. It was early, but oddly enough, after spending the majority of the day in bed, I still kind of wanted to lay down and rest. We did just that for an hour or so, but soon I felt good enough to go out to dinner with my husband and do some walking around.

The thing that struck me most about the whole process was that, literally hours after the donation completed, the thing I wanted most in the world was to have a chance to do it again. I know the odds are slim that I would ever be a match for another patient, but given the opportunity, I would not hesitate to do this again. There’s always a chance that this patient may need a second transplant, and I am ready to donate again for her.

The day after the donation I felt almost completely normal. I still had a dull headache and slight backache, but even that was gone by the following day. The doctor had warned me that due to the extra blood thinners they give during the donation process and the fact that platelets are removed with stem cells (they are similar in density so they are filtered out with the stem cells), I would be prone to bleeding and bruising for a while. So, I wasn’t allowed to shave or do anything strenuous for a few days in order to reduce the risk of injury.

Now, a few weeks after donating, I feel fine. I am back to running (although taking most of the month of November off has left me needing to rebuild my endurance), and I am having absolutely no side effects. It’s almost like it never happened.

So there it is. The whole process. My stem cells have now been in the patient for almost two weeks. I had a dream a few nights ago that everything was okay, and that she was already showing signs of recovery. Of course I have no way of knowing that, since I won’t receive any information about the patient for a while. According to the information I received, it can be 100 days or longer for the recovery process. So I will hope for the best, and wait for news of her condition.

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