In 2007 my older sister Jonell was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia during her senior year of college. CML is a type of blood cancer that can settle in other parts of the body including the spleen. It’s a slow growing cancer that can mutate into a fast growing acute leukemia that can be very hard to treat.
For five years Jonell went through chemotherapy, starting with pills while working with Be The Match for support and resources on how to cope. After sometime, the medications Jonell was taking stopped working and the process of finding her a donor began; but because of the lack of diversity on the bone marrow registry, my sister, who is mixed race, had no luck finding a donor. The doctors decided to begin the process of testing our mom and Jonell’s dad to see if either of them would be a match for her transplant. However, the doctors didn’t recommend either our mother or her father for various reasons.
By 2010, I had moved to Florida to attend college. Before I left, Jonell’s doctors had already ruled myself and my younger sister out as potential donors; they said that since we were only half siblings it wasn’t likely either of us would be a match.
During my time away at school I had a dream one night. I remembered the dream so clearly because I knew it had to have been a sign from God. In the dream, Jonell and I laid in hospital beds side by side, and she was healthy. The moment I woke up I knew I had to get tested to be sure. Unfortunately that didn’t happen for another two years because the doctors believed it was highly unlikely I would be a match, and by that time they had decided to try out another medication and continue to wait on a hit from the registry. But the clock was ticking, and the new medication stopped working; so in March of 2012, after I moved back home to transfer schools, and my mom scheduled an appointment to have my younger sister and I both tested just in case.
When the results came back, I was a half match. At the time doctors were experimenting with clinical trial haploid transplants. A haploid transplant is when donor cells from a family member who is at least a half match are used. This kind of transplant is very risky because if a patient decides to go this route and the transplant is unsuccessful, the patient would no longer be a candidate for any kind of transplant because the damage to the body from the radiation would be irreversible; but it was our only option.
The transplant was scheduled for June 15, 2012. In the few weeks leading up to the transplant day, Jonell began high potency chemotherapy and full body radiation. The process was brutal for her; she couldn’t keep any food down was in a lot of pain. By this time, Jonell had moved to Atlanta to live with her father.
I flew to Atlanta to begin the process of becoming Jonell’s donor. I was tested to ensure that I was healthy and wouldn’t risk passing any sicknesses or diseases to my sister. I was tested for HIV, STDs, and for any other foreign bodies within my blood stream. All tests except one came back negative: I tested positive for sickle cell trait. I was still able to be Jonell’s donor, but after the transplant was over my sickle cell trait would be passed on to her as well. The sickle cell trait is not harmful to the body in anyway. Jonell being passed the trait just meant that if she were to conceive a child with another person whom also had the trait, that they would risk having a child with the disease. For the sake of the transplant, this wasn’t a big deal at all.
Another issue I faced during the testing stage was a problem with my weight. I was under a lot of stress at the time, including the pressure I felt about being my sister’s donor. I was afraid that if the transplant wasn’t successful it would be my fault, and with the added anxiety I began rapidly losing weight. I was 5’4 inches tall and only weighed about 93 pounds; so the doctors recommended that I greatly increased my food intake for the next two weeks in order to be at a good weight for the donation.
The next step in the process was the filgrastim injections. Filgrastim is injected into the donor’s body to help increase the production of white blood cells forming in the bloodstream. On the day of the donation, my blood would be removed and passed through a machine which would separate these healthy blood forming cells, which would then be given to my sister, and then remaining blood returned back into my body. About a week before the transplant date I had to inject myself in the thigh everyday. The pain wasn’t bad at all. I would put an ice cube on the injection site to numb the area before placing the needle into my leg which greatly decreased the pain. I had bandages all over my thighs by the end of the week, which must have looked crazy to everyone else when I would walk around in shorts because it was so hot in Georgia that summer.
By the end of the week and the completion of the injections, I was ready for the donation.
[Come back Next Week for Part 2!]