Stem Cell Transplant: Just The Basics

A friend who has a friend facing a stem cell transplant thought, with good reason, that I could pass on some useful information.

When she asked, I said I thought I had just the thing. It was this post that I wrote about the transplant itself being anticlimactic.

I thought it would be helpful because when I first heard of it, without any specifics, the big unknown scared me. I wanted people to know what exactly happened and why it was not earth-shattering.

What happens during a stem cell transplant

I had written that the cells “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.”

So far, so good, right?

I also described the horrific days before the transplant. But I thought that was OK because the point was more about what came after those bad days. My friend thought it was a bit too much.

“Hm... it’s very good but I am afraid it could add to my friend’s worries,” she wrote. “I was thinking more of a ‘5 things to know’ type of thing with a positive twist, i.e., ‘A high fever is to be expected, but don’t be afraid. This is your body working hard to integrate the new cells.’ Or something like that.”

I said I didn’t know if high fevers are expected, so I couldn’t write that. Though I did just look it up and find that fever is among the side effects listed on the website of my home-away-from-home, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I got my four transplants.

“The most common side effects during stem cell infusion are fevers, headaches, chills, flushing, and nausea at the end of the infusion — which can occur up to one hour after the stem cell infusion is completed. In some cases, intravenous fluids or medication can be given to help prevent or reduce these effects,” according to the website.1

"It's like unpacking a suitcase"

Here’s how I boiled it down.

There is a lot of excitement surrounding the time when your new cells will be coming. And with good reason, they’re giving you a new chance at life. The date will be your new birthday, or “re-birthday."

My nurse said she would monitor blood pressure and heart rate closely and be with me the whole time. She said that after they went in, the process would be like unpacking a suitcase. The cells find their way to your marrow, where they begin producing new, healthy blood cells.

It doesn’t feel any different from getting a blood or platelet transfusion. They put the bag of cells up on the IV pole, press start (or whatever they do to make it start), and in they go. I don’t remember how long it took, but I don’t think it was even an hour. My heart rate went up a little, but a doctor came in and gave me something to slow it down. It was probably my body’s way of getting a little bit over-excited when greeting its new visitors.

The next day I was a little more tired than usual. Part of it was likely due to the effect of the anticipation, part of it was from the excitement of getting a second chance, and part from what was going on in my body.

After the transplant, I stayed in the hospital until my blood counts went back to normal. Then I went home with a set of gradually lessening restrictions... and now, knock on wood, I am OK.

My friend wrote back, “Thank u!!!” I guess that means she was happy with it. I hope it helped her friend out, and if you or a loved one is facing a transplant, I hope it helps you too.

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