Get on the Registry

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It was December 2005, and my grandfather had been suffering with a very aggressive form of Leukemia (AML) for almost two years. His illness had become commonplace in our family by that point, each time the leukemia would return and my grandfather would undergo very aggressive chemotherapy treatments until the cancer would, once again, go into remission. Then, a few months later, it would return again and the cycle would repeat itself. Only by January 2006, the chemotherapy had stopped being as effective as it had been, and the leukemia was coming back sooner and sooner each time. The only option left for my grandfather was a stem cell transplant, which was still fairly new, and something my family had not really heard much about at that point. But since it was his only hope, he agreed to the transplant.

The first obstacle that had to be overcome was finding a donor. His family was not an option, since his children (my mother included) were half his genetic makeup and half his wife’s (my grandmother). His brothers were also not an option, since all of his siblings were half-brothers (they had the same dad, but different mothers). So, a call went out over the donor registry to try to find a potential match for him. The good news was that he was all Polish, and that made things easier. If his genetic makeup consisted of
many different ancestors, from many different countries, his search would’ve been a lot harder.

In a few weeks, after the closest matches had gone through more extensive genetic testing, the search was narrowed to three possible donors. The closest was a male in his early 40’s. The younger the donor male or female, the better since their stem cells are more viable. A woman who has had a baby is not as good a candidate, regardless of her age, since while she was pregnant there was a mixture of her blood and the baby’s blood, and something called antigens form, which changes the chemistry of the blood.

So the next obstacle he had to face was if the potential donor would be willing to donate their stem cells. Although the procedure was less invasive to the donor than the old-fashioned bone marrow procedure, there were still risks. The donor had to be injected several times, over the course of a few days, with a drug that would make him produce an abundance of stem cells necessary for the transplant. This was a risk to the donor - since the procedure was somewhat new, and the potential long-term side effects of the shots were unknown. Also, everything seemed to take a long time to happen. And at the time, my grandfather’s cancer was taking over his blood. He would need exactly 7 days of chemotherapy before the transplant could take place, to clean out his bone marrow, and it seemed as though the donor was taking a very long time to agree to the procedure. All we, his family, could do was pray. Eventually, we received word that the donor had agreed and everything was set in motion.

Within a couple of weeks, my grandfather was ready for the transplant, which, when it happened, seemed anticlimactic. It was a snowy day, the end of January 2006, around noon, when the nurses put an IV into my grandfather’s port, and the stem cells were inserted. Then it was just a waiting game to see if they would take.

During that time, my grandfather had to be on numerous anti-rejection drugs, hoping the new stem cells would make their way into his bone marrow and harvest. And for a while it seemed so, but within about five months, his leukemia returned once again, and we were told there was nothing else the doctor’s could do for him. He died of leukemia on June 30th, 2006.

Although we had so much hope for the transplant to work, we will be eternally grateful to my grandfather’s donor. For because of his selflessness, my grandfather lived for an extra six months. The donor gave my grandfather six months of life he would not have had otherwise. And so, even though the procedure was considered by the medical community to be unsuccessful, no one can put a price tag on six months of life? To us, it was a success. And we are eternally grateful to his donor, someone we will never get the chance to meet. Please consider getting on the bone marrow/stem cell registry because you might save someone else’s life, or at the very least prolong it.





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