Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Welcome Home, Stem Cells: Round 1

The reinfusion of my stem cells was really quite uneventful. You'd think that the influx of 6.5 million cells with organic homing devices frantically flying through my body to find where they are needed would at least illicit a plumb of smoke from a big toe or something. But no, once again, I'm amazed at how the human body works. Not believing it when they told me it would be a pretty peaceful process, I had visions of my body shaking as the cells would swam through my veins on rafts like they were navigating high-powered water slides. I'd imagined I'd have to be strapped down from all the pressure and that it would take hours for the wave pool to settle.

Instead, the stem cells that I worked so hard to create were dripped back into me over the course of 15 minutes. I felt nothing but a scratchiness at the back of my throat from the preservative that they were frozen with. They gave me a sour apple flavored queasy pop to counteract that. I had watched them pull out my bag of cells from something like an igloo cooler - classic blue and white - and put them into what looked like a hand towel warmer oven to thaw them to my body temperature. I lay under covers on the bed while the bag was hung on the IV pole next to me and the pump was set at a relatively quick rate sending the cells cascading in. My pulse, heart rate, oxygen and blood pressure were being monitored throughout and three nurses stayed in the room to watch over the process, all the while Craig was there by my side.

Craig and I were both a little annoyed as the nurses kept chatting to each other about mundane work complaints or protocols, talking about nonsensical things like how they're happy that the schools recently banned students the right to dye their hair outrageous colors. One irritatingly remarking with a snort: "I bet Karin would take any color." I just sneered back.

"Hello, don't you know what's going on here?!?" I was screaming inside thinking how momentous this occasion was – Craig and I sharing knowing glances at each other. They'd of course ask how I was doing every few minutes and make sure that the throat tingling wasn't progressing to throat closure as can happen with some patients who react to the preservative. I thought it would all be more serious, more monumental. But then I realized that they do this every day. Stem cell re-infusions are what they do and that instead of getting annoyed by their casual nature I should actually be comforted by it. Just because this whole stem cell transplant world is so bizarro land to me doesn't mean that it is to the medical team. If it was, that would be a major problem.

"Thanks for making that so painless," said one of the nurses.

"I do what I can," I said.

Erin, Dr. Cooper's APRN, whom I work most closely with, stopped by to check in.

"Are you eating pretzels?" She asked.

"Yes ... is that bad?" I asked, blushing.

"No. No. That's great," she said. "You're doing much better than others who go through DI-CEP."

My favorite PCA Wade also was wowed that I was up and walking around after I got antsy with waiting asking me, "Isn't it reinfusion day? Most people just lay there and sleep." I guess he doesn't know me very well yet.

That made me feel good to hear that I'm doing well considering, although I know that there is plenty of time to hit bottom. I've already started to feel progressively worse. They kept me in the clinic another couple of hours to flush the preservative out with fluids and to monitor my urine closely for any signs of blood. Every test came out clear. I guess the little guys are nestled back in and are ready to start birthing some much-needed red and white cells for me.

To clarify (if clarity is attainable in such a confusing process) it is not the stem cells that are killing the cancer or in any way ridding my body of the cancer. This is not a form of stem cell therapy. There is lots of burgeoning research on this for many diseases but we're not there yet. There was a piece on 60 Minutes this weekend about "stem cell quackery" doing an undercover investigation of a sick, sick person taking advantage of those with ALS, MS, cancer, taking their money for expensive therapies telling them that stem cell transplants will save their lives and allow them to walk again. That is not the reality - yet - though hopefully with enough research that will come very soon. It was sickening to see these people desperate for hope at a chance be so brutally taken advantage of.

I am incredibly luckily that the discovery of the powers of stem cells has been made and that science has been able to force a body to produce them, harness them, and be able to reintroduce them to build a whole new molecular system. This has made huge strides toward cures for blood cancers. For me, the stem cells are my recovery method. It is the very aggressive, very toxic chemotheraphy that is killing the cancer cells and good cells within me. As the world knows all too well, the science of chemo does not yet have the ability to discriminate good and bad cells. It is killing everything – right now – leaving me completely wiped of bone marrow which is where all of our blood cells are made. The reinfusion of the stem cells is what allows me to have that life-saving chemotherapy. Without them, I could not recover. So as uneventful as the reinfusion was, I still consider my stem cells a brigade of super heros on speeding water slides making a fresh new home where there once were cancer cells. I look forward when the other 6.5 million make their way in after the upcoming mid-May chemo and we're all one happy, healthy molecular miracle.


  1. Yeh---welcome home I agree---you are doing great and it will all be history soon---you are a classic survivor case---bye bye Mr. Hodgkins

  2. Oh yeh---signed Bev & Blake

  3. You rock Karin, my exceptional patient friend!!
    :) Michelle, the pink warrior

  4. You're getting it done. The way that you're going through this with such strength and with such a great outlook makes us all so proud of you.Keep it up. God bless you. Irene

  5. that's for the stem cell clarification. i'm happy that we are still able to take strides in research. more importantly, i'm happy that you're getting closer to the final treatment. thinking of you today. wishing you some rest and peace.