Stem Cell Donation - A Donor's Story (Part 2)

This month we continue Jennifer’s powerful story of becoming a stem cell donor.

27th July 2016 – TRANSPLANT DAY.

I woke up early and headed to the hospital with my nephew and my sister’s husband, we went into the isolation ward and in the room a candle had been life by the nurses, a lovely gesture. My brother called on skype and we were inundated with well wishers.  Just before 10am the doctor came to talk with us, he thanked me for my contribution and commented on the strength of the cells.

The stem cells were brought down from the lab, because they had been storing them since Monday a little anti-freeze had been added to keep them fresh.  Just before the transplant itself started all the nurses came in, we held hands and a prayer was said.  This is something that they do before all transplants – a very thoughtful idea and a very calming one.  End of one life and the start of a new one for sure.

My sister and I were joking about how she would behave after the transplant as studies have shown that recipients can sometimes inherit behaviour from their donors. We hoped that she would wake up as crazy as me!

So it began.  The stem cells were hung and connected to the line that J had in already. Every now and then the nurse who was in charge of the transplant would draw some of the stem cells into a syringe and then push them back into the line. When I asked why she was doing that she explained that because the mixture was thicker with the anti-freeze it had to be pushed though at times. Everything appeared to be going ok until J started coughing and struggling to breathe a little.  It was awful to see her like that.  The tears were rolling down her face and you could see she was in a lot of pain.  The nurse was as calm as you like and placed the oxygen mask on J’s face to help her breath.  I was so scared and was so very afraid that something was going wrong.  Yes I wanted to help J but did not want this to hurt her so much.  The nurse said that yes this happens sometimes but not to worry.  J was just unlucky in that she was having a bad reaction to the anti-freeze, it was terrifying to watch. 

The transplant process took about 30 minutes in total – that was all and that was it.  We took a few minutes to say goodbye to J and then left as she need to sleep. I left in tears, just hoping that she would be alright.

The following day I went to visit J and we talked about the transplant, she said that she could see the fear in our faces which was very frightening. All we could do now was wait for the next 10-12 days and see if the transplant had been a success. This would be difficult, especially as the patient can often get worse before they improve.  

Four days later and my sisters health had gone downhill fast, she could not keep anything down and the nurse had to insert a feeding tube. For the first time today I saw my sister as a little old lady which in reality she is being in her late sixties.  That really hit home hard – she has always just been my sister, not some little old lady.  That brought tears to me but I could not let her see that. At this stage I wonder if I had known that it would get this bad would I still have agreed to go through with it. The answer is always yes , anything to give her a precious chance at life again.  There is an old saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – I hope and pray that she comes out the other side of this a much stronger person – that is my fervent wish.

Over the next few days J was seriously ill.  More than once I held her head and her hand whilst she was sick, holding the sick basin and empting it for her.  She did say that she did not want me seeing her like that but I didn’t mind, I told her she was lucky I was not throwing up with her.  I did my best to cheer her up and to make her smile/laugh at least once a day. 

The 4th of August was my last day in South Africa, I arrived at the hospital, changed into scrubs, cleaned my hands with alcohol and headed into my sister’s isolation ward to see how she is doing today before I head home.  I am thinking of something funny to say or do as I walk into her room to cheer her up, only to find her doctor already sitting in there.  My heart sank as he was looking very serious; I knew that no results were expected until 10 days post-transplant. He explained that he had done some blood tests on J that morning, as he did every day after the transplant and this morning he had noticed something different, white blood cells.  The transplant had been a success and my sister was in remission, it was the most amazing feeling!

It turned out that not only was J the oldest patient in their hospital to ever receive a transplant but that was also the quickest they had ever seen a patient show results.

This was the ultimate high to travel home on; joy, relief, gratitude, happiness.

2 months later and my sister has continued to go from strength to strength, a few blips along the way but no more than expected. Most patients can expect to fully recover within 6 months.

My feelings now – I had no doubts about following through with this procedure and no regrets over having done it.  To see my sister getting better and knowing that I have had a hand in that is a very humbling experience - to realise that I held the gift of life and was able to give that gift to my sister.

Would I do it again? Without a doubt.

6 ½ weeks later - Looking back over my diary of that period in time, there are days when I was in tears, watching what my sister was going through but she never saw those tears – they were only shed after I had left her. It was tough for her, without a doubt but I felt and still do feel that I was there to cheer her up, keep her smiling through it all and be strong for her.

I will admit that I was very lucky to have a few close friends and family members who supported me the whole way through the process, listened to my concerns and fears but who, at the same time, encouraged me.

I am probably one of the biggest advocates of stem-cell donation now, having seen what a difference it can make to a person’s life.  Yes there were a few risks involved to myself but as it turned out, I suffered from none of them. I do realise that this will not be the case for everyone.  I have spoken to those people who know me and knew what I was doing and have encouraged them to get registered.  Many of those people had heard the horror stories of bone marrow/stem cell donation but hearing it from someone who has been through the process has been a real eye-opener for them.  It was and is more than worth that small risk to myself to give the precious gift of live to someone, whether it be a family member of someone you don’t know, something I will always be humbled by and feel blessed that I was given this opportunity to do good.