Well, I wasn’t sure just how much of the process I wanted to share. It was immensely personal and I don’t want to use it an opportunity to make myself sound better than I really am. On another note, it was an insanely educational and encouraging experience that can facilitate healthy discussion.
I made up my mind to share a little more when I learned that the day I gave my Stem Cells, through a process called Apheresis, was actually Apheresis (A-pher-e-sis) Awareness Day.
I usually think of Awareness Days as being a source of support or comfort for those struggling with a lesser known illness or destigmatizing mental health issues. These are wonderful subjects to build awareness around and it seemed strange to throw something like Apheresis in there; a process that I chose to undergo.
Here is the thing though: most of the phone calls my parents have received have been concerned about how I handled a bone marrow harvest. That is still the expected way to handle a donation to a leukemia patient. A full, painful surgery with a long road to recovery.
This, however, is no longer the case. There are some specific cancers that still require a bone marrow donation, sometimes the health of the patient or donor will dictate what is able to happen. There is no one size fits all treatment plan, as my dad’s team has constantly reminded him. The path towards remission and recovery is not a straight line; it is a flow chart with several dozen possible changes. It is a planner’s worst nightmare, but they have been rolling with the punches as they trust in God.
So, what is Apheresis?
This is a process where blood is removed from the body, desired components are filtered out, and the blood is then returned back to your own body. The machine will process 12 liters in a day. This does not mean 12 liters were out of my body at one time. It is a continuous process of drawing, filtering, and re-administering.
Prior to the actual stem cell collection; I received a series of growth factor shots to stimulate and mobilize my stem cells. So, to create more of them and release them from my bone marrow into my blood stream.
The shots, in my opinion, were mildly uncomfortable. There was some bone ache and pain as the factories inside of my bones worked overtime producing stem cells. It was well tolerated, but not something I would have chosen if there wasn’t a life hanging in the balance. I can easily file that pain under “small sacrifice” and can honestly say that I am no longer experiencing any.
The most painful part, for me, was the placement of the Mahurkar catheter in my neck. This is a dialysis catheter that inserts through the jugular vein and acts as a central line to pump blood straight out of the Superior Vena Cava.
It was very stiff and felt a little as if someone had jammed a clothing hanger inside of my chest. There was virtually no mobility and I had a heck of a time falling asleep for the one night I wore it. I had to keep it in overnight in case my dad required a second day of collections and to make sure my blood was clotting well prior to removal.
This isn’t required for all donors, many are able to undergo the procedure with a PICC line in each arm instead. In my case, it was ruled that my veins were too small for the large bore needle necessary for retrieving Stem Cells. I have always produced blood well, but my veins are not large and they felt this would be the safest option for me and the most likely to get the appropriate number of cells for my dad.
Initially, I planned to give a second day for research purposes if my dad had all he needed and I was looking healthy enough to donate more. The difficulty of the catheter was part of the reason that I decided to forgo that. The main reason was; I am beyond ready to be home with my husband and children.
That was truly the hardest part of this whole ordeal. Two weeks away from my man and my babies is way too long.
Well, that was the hardest, emotionally.
The hardest part, physically, was attempting to change out of my hospital gown and into regular clothing after the catheter placement. I had a hanger on one side of my body with numbing agents all around, a very stiff IV in one arm and some rather strong sedatives still in my system. That took some skill and determination, and just may be my most impressive physical feat to date.
Yesterday was the peak of our journey. I was fortunate enough to hang around and watch these cells flow into my dad’s veins. He handled it well with no immediate reaction, although they will begin the long process of watching, waiting, and administering a cocktail of medications to fight graft-vs-host disease and teach his body how to produce his own healthy cells again.
It was a privilege and an honor to be part of the process. To learn alongside my parents and have a chance to care for dad. It was a delight to watch them living their marriage vows, in sickness and in health. To see them take the storm thrown at them and walk it with faith and honor for each other and Christ.
My part is over now and he is back in the capable and nurturing hands of my mom. He is covered in prayer by our community and working through it with that power and just a touch of naturally occurring stubborness. 😅
I move forward with confidence and a new found respect for, and fascination with, the transplant process.
I may also be exploiting the opportunity to gain more respect from my children. As they understand it, mommy has sent superhero cells into Pa’s body to teach him how to fight germs again.
Working with what life throws at you, right?
So here are my closing thoughts.
Yes, there was pain but it was temporary pain with a powerful purpose. It was an extremely rewarding experience and a choice I would make again .
There are opportunities in life to live larger than ourselves and, in my experience, they are always worth it.
To all the donors who have done this for complete strangers and the hundred of individuals who donate blood. To the caregivers (like my mom) who donate time and energy every day, to the doctors, nurses and scientists continually improving this process, and the patients fighting with all their strength. You are amazing!
If you are interested in signing up for HLA typing to be potentially matched someday, check out this website.