It is natural for leukemia patients to worry about an upcoming stem cell transplant. I worried plenty. The whole concept was momentous and mysterious. A lot of excitement surrounded the day I got my cells in September 2003. A nurse announced their expected arrival time. I was nervous, as though at a party, waiting for a special guest to enter. But I was bald and lying in bed. When they arrived, the nurse said, “Your cells are here! Your cells are here!”
Well, actually, though from my body’s standpoint it was momentous, from my personal point of view, it was no big deal. They arrive in an IV bag, the same way as blood, platelets, or other solutions, such as antibiotics, would. A nurse hooks it up, and in they go. The nurse sits with you, monitoring your blood pressure and other vital signs. As for me, I was 48 years old, about to be a new baby.
Some of the days leading up to my new birthday were horrendous, making the transplant itself anticlimactic. My sister sent out group email updates that described my reaction to the chemotherapy. “As we expected, Ronni has good days and bad days,” she wrote in April 2003. “She wanted me to tell you that she prepared for her ‘assignment’ here by recently writing a story on hot yoga in which the room is heated to 105 degrees because that is what her temperature reached last night. I asked the nurse this morning what she did to get it down, and she said prayers and ice packs. The doctor said she’s running these high fevers because her body is working harder than ever to fight the infections. On top of the fevers, she’s really loaded down with other side effects – a terrible rash and an infection in her colon which has caused extreme distress and means she can’t eat or drink anything for a few days, maybe a week. In spite of this, she seems to be in reasonable spirits, is in good hands, and is responding to the treatment.”
5 million cells and a new birthday
I was slated to get an autologous transplant, using my own cells. After I went into remission in July, I donated my own new clean stem cells, five million of them collected through an IV over a period of a week. They were frozen to be returned to me after the last, strongest round of chemo depleted my bone marrow. I asked how they knew that a leukemia cell wouldn’t sneak in. They said there was no test, but to rest assured because leukemia cells don’t like being frozen. Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells that develop into any of the more than 200 types of cell in an adult body. My nurse said when the cells arrived, “They’ll unpack their bags and figure out where to go.”
My sister wrote, “It was a tense day because patients can sometimes have a serious reaction to the preservative used during the freezing process and she was therefore carefully monitored. Before each bag, my mother did a little dance with the nurses. The dancing must have helped because she didn’t have a negative reaction to the cells and in general was feeling better. After three days of nausea, no eating, not getting up at all, it was a relief to feel a bit better, go for a short walk around the nurses’ station, and have some soup.”