Canadian stem cell donor travels to Florida to save man battling blood cancer
Ita reflects on her experience learning she was a match for a blood cancer patient and traveling from Canada to Florida to donate stem cells and help save his life
I’ve just returned from one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’d like to share it with you.
In 2018, I went on an organized trip to Israel called Birthright, or Taglit in Hebrew. The trip is sponsored by both the Israeli government and private donors, to offer free trips to Israel for young Jews. The goal is to encourage young people to have a connection with Israel, and possibly consider immigration. We spent ten days touring the beautiful country on a bus, visiting various sites and attractions.
One evening, a man from Gift of Life Marrow Registry came to speak to our group. He explained that Gift of Life has the mission of curing blood cancer through cellular therapy such as a peripheral blood stem cell transplant, and we could get involved. The organization runs recruitment drives on campuses and in communities, and in order to join the registry of potential donors we only had to swab the inside of our cheeks. If any of us were found to be a match for someone with leukemia or another blood disease, we would have the opportunity to donate stem cells or bone marrow. I completed the kit and joined the registry without much thought.
A few months ago, I got an email from Gift of Life that I was a potential match for a 29-year-old man battling blood cancer. At that point, I was told I had a 25 percent chance of being a close enough match to donate to him. That was much better than the 1 in 430 chance most donors had, but I still didn’t think much of it. I was asked to do another cheek swab test to learn exactly how close a match I was for the patient. The kit was sent to me through expedited delivery from Gift of Life’s headquarters in Florida. Blood tests followed, all hurriedly done in clinics that had been transformed into Covid-19 testing sites. Montreal was under lockdown and travel was restricted, so it was a nerve-wracking time.
After the tests, things picked up pace. I’ll always remember the phone call I received telling me that I was the patient’s match and I would be able to donate peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) to help him. The plan was to fly me to Florida for the apheresis procedure at Gift of Life’s collection center, where my stem cells would be extracted and carried by a courier to the patient’s location, where he would receive the transplant that could save his life.
In late October, Gift of Life flew me and my sister to Florida. We were there for a week, since for four days prior to the procedure I had to be injected daily with a medication called Neupogen to increase the stem cell count in my blood. We were put up in a hotel by the beach, and each day after my morning injection my sister and I explored the area. We visited museums, the wetlands, Trader Joe’s grocery store and the beach.
At the end of the week, a sleek car service drove us to the donation center. It didn’t seem clinical at all – we were greeted warmly and offered snacks, a blanket, and other comforts. I was shown into a cubicle where the nurses administered some tests and gave me my final shot of medication. Then, I had a needle inserted into each of my arms. During a process called apheresis blood was taken out of one arm and run through a machine called a blood cell separator. The machine collected the PBSC, some platelets, and some white blood cells, and then returned the remaining plasma and red blood cells into my other arm. The donation process usually takes four to six hours, though on rare occasions a donor is given an overnight break and returns the next day to finish up.
After about six hours, the machine was still chugging away beside me. Two women in lab coats came into the cubicle.
“We have a request,” they said.
At that point, I was tired and cranky and I feared the worst. Maybe my stem cells weren’t good enough. Maybe the patient’s condition had suddenly deteriorated.
“We would like to pause the collection for today and ask you to come back in the morning to complete the donation,” the nurse said. My worries had proved to be unfounded; my stem cells were just fine. Although two-day donations are not the norm, I needed to stay in Florida for an extra day to finish the process. Our flight was changed and our hotel stay was extended.
On day two of the extraction process my arms were a bit sore, but I was determined to help my recipient survive cancer. And as my sister and I flew home to Montreal the day after donating, I felt perfectly fine.
I feel really blessed to have been afforded this opportunity. Not many people get the chance to save a life, and in sunny Florida, no less. This experience restored my faith in humanity just a tiny bit.
First, it is thanks to modern medicine and technology that I could fly to another country, then have some of my cells removed and flown across the world to cure cancer and save someone’s life. Second, the existence of Gift of Life facilitated this entire process, thanks to all the financial donors, employees, and everyone who has gotten their cheeks swabbed and joined the registry. I’m enormously grateful to have been a part of it all and hope that someday I will be able to meet my recipient.
Ita is currently taking a gap year and freelancing as a motion graphics designer.