I’m a Match: My Journey From Advanced Practice BMT Nurse to Stem Cell Transplant Donor

February 11, 2022

By Tia T. Wheatley, DNP, RN, AOCNS®, BMTCN®

Six years ago, I signed up for the marrow registry through the German Bone Marrow Donor Center (https://www.dkms.org/), also known as DKMS, which is an international organization that hosts stem cell registry drives. In late 2021, I received the call that I was a fully matched donor for a patient with chronic myeloid leukemia. As a hematology and oncology clinical nurse specialist, I have seen how valuable (https://voice.ons.org/news-and-views/the-evolving-landscape-of-cell-transplant-therapy-in-cancer-care) the gift of stem cells can be for a patient with hematologic disease. I didn’t think twice about completing the donation process.

The First Step

Joining the registry was simple. I just swabbed my cheek, and my human leukocyte antigen (HLA) profile was added to the Be the Match registry (https://bethematch.org/about-us/), which is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). Learning that I was a fully matched donor for a patient in need was like being told I had won the lottery, especially because I am biracial. Full matching is most likely with donors and recipients from the same ethnic background (https://bethematch.org/transplant-basics/matching-patients-with-donors/how-does-a-patients-ethnic-background-affect-matching/#:~:text=When%20it%20comes%20to%20matching,complex%20tissue%20types%20than%20others.).

After finding out I was a preliminary match, I underwent additional tests to make sure I was the best fit, including a physical exam to confirm that I was healthy enough to donate and lab work to verify my HLA typing.

I was assigned a coordinator and physician through NMDP, and they provided me with information regarding the donation process. Even though I had provided this same information to patients and caregivers countless times as a clinical nurse specialist, it was nice to feel fully supported.

Donation and Collection

The donation process was relatively simple. For five days, I self-administered filgrastim, a medication used to stimulate the bone marrow to produce more stem cells. I have administered the drug multiple times to patients in the past, so I opted to self-inject since I was so familiar with its side-effect profile.

I experienced some bone pain, which I alleviated with acetaminophen and light exercise like riding my stationary bike and walking outdoors. Other than that, my journey leading up to collection was uneventful.

The day of collection went exactly how I had described to patients preparing for transplant. The filgrastim had generated enough stem cells in my bone marrow, and my veins were able to tolerate the apheresis machine. My stem cell collection took about three hours in total. I took off a few days to recover at home then returned to work the following week.

What Inspired Me

Most patients who require a stem cell transplant have a 25% chance of matching with a relative (https://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/bone-marrow-transplant-genetics). The odds are even lower for patients who require an unrelated donor. Since stem cell transplant relies on HLA matching, some patients with certain ethnic or racial backgrounds (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30917950/) have an even smaller chance of finding a match.

Being a hematology and oncology advanced practice nurse and now a stem cell transplant donor has humbled me daily. I have seen firsthand how the procedure has improved the lives of countless individuals with hematologic diseases. Before my donation, my experience with stem cell transplant was limited to inpatient care, where the cells just show up to the unit on day 0. Now, I have an understanding of the sacrifice and kindness that goes into each donated bag. It has added a deeper, more personal connection to my clinical practice.

The opportunity to provide hope to someone in need beyond my typical role was truly remarkable—especially knowing that my small sacrifice could have a lasting impact on a complete stranger and their family.

If you’re 18–40 years old and willing to be a donor, sign up for Be the Match’s registry, especially if you are an ethnic or racial minority. You never know if you will be the difference for someone in search of a lifesaving transplant. Learn more about how you can support this miraculous cause (https://bethematch.org/support-the-cause/).  

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