When Dr. M told me, two years ago, that I had multiple myeloma, he added that a) the disease is incurable, b) at my age (68), I could expect to die of it in five years. Unless, that is, c) I agreed to have an autologous peripheral stem cell transplantation, in which case I would probably be around for another two.
No doubt it was un-Catholic, but I opted for c).
Autologous means “belonging to oneself.” Which is to say that this procedure makes use of the patient’s own stem cells. Peripheral means “flowing,” implying that the patient’s stem cells are harvested from his blood stream, and not, as in the past, from his surgically removed bone marrow.
What happens is this: First the patient must undergo fitness tests. His heart, lungs and teeth have to be in A1 condition for him to qualify for an autologous stem cell transplant.
Then comes the actual harvesting of stem cells. This involves the patient in sitting beside a machine with two tubes connecting him to it, one going into his blood stream and the other coming out of it. Through these tubes his blood flows into the machine and back into his body minus stem cells. The harvesting lasts about two hours and may have to be repeated if the number of stem cells garnered is not large enough. It is entirely painless. I whiled away the time solving crosswords.
After this, the patient goes home.
Some weeks later, when a bed becomes available, he is admitted to hospital in a private room where he receives the most powerful dose of chemo drugs that a person can tolerate. In my case, it denuded me of hair and left a white deposit in my mouth and crotch. I was lucky to be spared mouth sores. I did, however, get the nausea, which was so violent that, for the first time in my life, I seriously wished to be dead.
Finally, the patient gets back his stem cells. They are reinserted into his veins through a cylindrical syringe which looks like a giant cake decorator. The process is entirely painless, its only unpleasant feature a smell emanating from one of the chemicals used to keep the blood from clotting, which stays with one for the next 24 hours. Imagine being confined to a kitchen which has recently been used to cook a hundred brunches in.
Once the patient’s stem cells have re-established his immune system and his blood levels are safely elevated, he goes home. In my case, that happy event took place on Jan. 2, 2002 Some days later, I had another nausea attack, and another wish that I were dead.
After that, I caught double pneumonia, which I managed to get the better of in 10 days. Since then, my hair has regrown, and my stem cells continue steadfastly to go about their business. Thanks to Doctor M’s advice, I still may. God willing, I have another five years ahead of me.
Never let me say a bad word about adult stem cells!