Today I donated stem cells, today – an insignificant moment of lounging around drinking tea has saved someone’s life. That someone is my brother Daniel. I feel like I’ve waited for this day forever. But today isn’t about me at all.
It is 18 months ago when I first went for testing to see if I was a sibling match for my eldest brother. I will not tell you his story, it isn’t mine to tell. But I will tell you about my journey and hope it inspires you for just enough time to click on the link to register to the Anthony Nolan Trust if you are aged 16-30 or if you are under 55 years old the DKMS UK charity.
It is really simple to register and you will receive a kit in the post to send swab samples back, and hopefully you will be a match for someone and they will get in contact with you.
There is a 25% chance that a sibling can be a potential donor, so when Dan needed a stem cell donor, me and my other brother were the first to be tested. This procedure again is a simple one, a trip to hospital or the GP for a cheek swab and a couple of vials of blood taken. A couple of weeks later I cried tears of joy when I received the phone call to say I was a match.
3 months before the estimated harvest date I was called back to the hospital to have more thorough tests and a meeting with the donor doctor. This doctor deals with the donor only so there is no conflict of interest further down the line. They explain the procedure and any side effects you may have with the stem cell stimulating injections (G-CSF).
A hormone-like substance, G-CSF occurs naturally in the body and increases the number of stem cells that are produced and then pushed out through the bone into the bloodstream. This way the stem cells can be taken from the arm vein rather than the bone marrow, which I think scares many people off.
I was warned that I would feel achey and quite painful with the injections, but it would only be temporary and the side effects would end after donation. Another potential side effect resulting from treatment with G-CSF is a temporary enlargement of the spleen, which donors cannot normally feel at all. But to ensure the spleen is not overstretched, donors should not do any weight training, contact sports or strenuous physical work from the first day they take G-CSF to the sixth day after the donation.
Prepare for Battle
Understanding that my immune system was going to be taking over my brother’s meant I wanted to be in the greatest position for that to happen.
I have always been fit and healthy with a strong understanding about fuelling the body and the importance of gut health for overall wellbeing.
I have followed a Paleo diet on and off for the past couple of years as a means of pain control and knew it would be perfect for improving my gut health. A Paleo diet is a whole food, nutrient dense diet including meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts, fruits and veggies, along with healthy fats and oils. Avoiding any inflammatory foods like processed foods, grains, dairy and sugar.
I was now fully committed to getting my body and immune system in the best possible shape. Did you know 70% of your immune system is in the gut? So have a healthy gut was absolute paramount.
4 days before the big harvest, you need to start having injections to stimulate the stem cell growth.
I’m gonna be honest with you here, I wimped out every single time I came to inject myself. I couldn’t understand how I couldn’t push the tiny needle through. You can request a district nurse to come and do the injections, luckily my husband had experience in injecting into the stomach and did them for me. Without any fuss and zero pain or bruising, plenty of tutting disappointment aimed my way though. Ha Ha!
By this point I had stopped going to outdoor bootcamp as I didn’t want to get injured and my precious white blood cells being put to use elsewhere and the spleen issue now meant no strenuous exercise or weight lifting.
I was definitely expecting some pain and anticipating it to be worse through time. I may be a lucky one, but I did not experience any pain, I had a little bit of weariness in my hips a couple of times and did 10 minutes of very gentle yoga to stretch it out. I do have a high pain threshold (yes I fall asleep getting tattoos and bikini line waxed) and the years of ice swimming certainly trains you to accept and ignore the pain, but I actually did not feel any pain to ignore. I am 100% putting this down to the anti-inflammatory diet I have been following. Although I did start to panic that because I wasn’t feeling any pain the G-CSF injections hadn’t worked and I was a complete dud!
Don’t be Alarmed
Normally the stem cells are taken from your arm vein like giving blood – but then spun through the apheresis machine and put back in the other arm.
I had been told during my appointment with the donor doctor that my arm veins were too weak and I would need the intravenous line to go into the vein in my groin instead.
This involved minor surgery under local anaesthetic, as it turned out another painless procedure lasting just a few minutes and I got to chat with the lovely porters and surgery staff.
Big Bonus Points meant I had both my hands to read books and drink tea!
It felt a little bizarre at times and meant I had to lounge like a Rubenesque painting rather than sitting.
Here I am with the apheresis machine, its absolutely fascinating. The nurses walked me through how it worked, what an amazing piece of engineering. It basically takes your blood spins it until the separate components split, they collect the plasma and stem cells and put the rest back into you. Clever eh?
Collection takes around 3-5 hours so now time to sit back and have a brew. After a while my lips started to tingle, this was something I had been made aware of and is caused by the blood thinners. A dose of calcium was administered and the tingling quickly subsided.