I know this is redundant for you, my loyal reader, but at one point or another this information will be shoved into this article, so let’s get it over with. Stem cells help my body to create blood cells. Red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout my body, white blood cells to help me combat infection, and platelets to help with clotting, which stops the other two from draining onto the floor should I cut myself. Stem cells enter the blood stream with no designation as to their purpose. There are no red stem cells, white stem cells or platelet stem cells, there are just stem cells. What they will become will be determined based on my body’s needs. The ‘harvest’ is about getting those stem cells out of my body before they become anything. This way doctor’s will be able to preform some ‘voodoo-magic-science’ on them, which will help them become ‘super-duper infection-fighting’ white blood cells. These modified stem cells will be re-introduced to my body in the final stage of my treatment, a few weeks from now. Okay, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now let’s get on with the story…
I stabbed myself for the last time on Day Nine of the ‘harvest’. I don’t know if this was meant to happen by design, or that someone at the hospital pharmacy has a warped sense of humour, but as I finished the last injection there was a slight pop and when the needle recoiled into the syringe a bubble of liquid came out of my body. WTF??!!! My brain went into hyper-drive! Did I just shove air into my body?? That’s dangerous, isn’t it??!! Did I do the injection wrong?? Is there an air bubble heading this second directly to my heart??!! My brain just spun. I took a breath and thought about what had just happened. My brain calmed and I remembered that all the syringes had had small air bubbles that helped with the mechanics of the injection. Also, I wasn’t injecting a vein, so the likelihood of me putting air into a vein was just about zero. Then I had the thought, maybe I’m just full, and that last bubble of medication just wasn’t needed. After a third breath, I settled on I had not gone deep enough with the last needle and the cause of the bubble was, ‘needle-pilot error’.
Day Nine of the ‘harvest’ came with a purpose, and I went through a daily routine that I had not preformed in a very long time. When I woke up, I showered immediately, got dressed, and got into my vehicle while it was still dark and drove to the Big City. I had to have a blood test today and this one had to be done at the main Cancer Care centre. The reason was that should I fail the blood test, and not be producing enough stem cells, I would be required to receive an extra IV treatment before the ‘harvest’ could take place the next day. My intentions, were to get into the clinic early to have my blood drawn and wait around until I got the results. Taking a chance that I would have to return to the Big City to receive the extra IV would be gambling an additional 4 hours of driving, hanging around drinking coffee, while chain-smoking in my car, would be the prudent choice. I was flying solo today, and that in itself was exciting in an anxiety-driven way, but did allow me the freedom to chose how I would spend my time in the city, without having to consider the desires of others. What I did is another story, but when my phone rang a few hours later and I was told, quite enthusiastically, by the lead nurse of my transplant group that the blood work, “…came back great…” and there were “…plenty of stem cells to harvest…” the next day and that I was “…free to go home…”, I was feeling pretty damn good about how the day had gone, bubble and all.
IT Genie and I left for the Big City just before 6am the next morning, ‘Harvest Day’. For the last ten days I had been subjecting my body to destructive chemotherapy drugs, stem cell producing injections and side-effect minimizing pills, all to get to this day. It was recommended that I have a driver for today, the ‘harvest’ may take up to eight hours, and having the blood syphoned out of my body would be exhausting, they told me. I didn’t have to be sold; it had already been long arranged. I was at the door to the Cancer Care treatment centre when it opened. There was a line up! We were told 20-mins and to take a seat by the receptionist. Less than five minutes later I was called to the door and a woman introduced herself, and told me she would be over-seeing the ‘harvest’. She gave me a small pill to dissolve under my tongue that would “relax my veins”. She told me that they would be ready to bring me in shortly, and she would be back to get me when they were ready. “Did someone talk to you about your blood work?” she had asked me. When I said no, other than to say it was good, she just said pleasantly, “Oh… okay, I’ll be back for you in about ten minutes.” Slightly puzzled by the remark, I obediently went back to the waiting room and sat with the others.
The waiting area in a cancer ward is a strange place to be. To the un-infected I’m sure it would feel uncomfortable and an awkward place to be, but since every person occupying a chair there is inflicted with something and would all rather be anywhere else but there, there is the feeling of comradery I imagine you’d find in a prison yard. “So, what are you in for?” is the normal conversation ice-breaker, and the next thing you know your comparing deceases and treatments with strangers, and telling funny stories to each other. It’s not a place I would encourage anyone to put on a bucket-list, but for me, I was glad it existed.
I was called to the door by an older woman, I had met her on a previous orientation of the surgery area. She had assured me, in a very brisk manner, that she would have no problem finding veins in my arms, I got the feeling she had been on the ward for a while. Today, she told me she was taking me to the washroom and then onto the ‘harvest’ area. “With your blood work this won’t take long,” she said to me then pointed at the washroom door. What is with my blood?? I hadn’t seen anyone’s face because of masks we all wore, but anytime some one had said “blood test”, I got the sense they were smiling. My blood test seemed to be making who understood it, quite happy. I was starting to get a bit un-nerved!
I pretty much forgot about the whole test thing when I was taken to a bed in the surgical ward, and saw the set-up. By the time I was lying on the bed, my only thought was of the two large transfusion needles being inserted, one into each arm. They hurt going in, and kept hurting. During the entire procedure! This was not just a little poke!! This was the reason I don’t like needles!! I was jacked into a machine that syphoned my blood out of my left arm and back into my right. The whole thing made me think that if I had looked up, I would have seen Igor standing on the far wall at the ready to flip the switch.
From my left arm, my blood was removed and sent to the machine. It hummed and rattled. No Lie!! The thing vibrated and shook as my blood went through a centrifuge and was separated. The nurse had to hold the read-out screen so she could see it! Multiple IV bags hung from a pole next to the machine, some were for collection and others contained additives. The separated blood was returned to my right arm through three separate transparent lines minus the stem cells. One held my red blood cells (bright red), one was my platelets (pale orange) and one carried a coagulant/saline solution to replace what was being removed by the machine. I lay trapped on a bed; this was a whole lot different than any treatment I had ever received and more painful. “At least we don’t have to collect too much to get the sample we need,” I was assured, “it will go faster because of the blood results.” All right, already!! Enough with the blood test results!! Will, someone please tell me what the deal is!!
Why?” I asked.
“It’s because of the stem cell count that was done on your blood yesterday,” she explained. “To have this procedure we like you to have a stem cell count of 15, we can do it at 7 if needed but anything below that requires additional medication to get your body to produce what we need. Your count is what tells us how much of your blood we need to remove in order to get what we need to culture your stem cells. A low number means we need to take more blood and a high number means we need to take less. Your number was 67.” I could see the big grin under her mask!! “You’ll be out of here in no time.”
Sixty-Seven! No wonder everyone was happy!! I was happy!!! I had four times the limit they hoped for!! The pain got a little more bearable from that point on. Even when my bladder could take no more and I was forced to pee in a bottle in the middle of the ward with the curtain drawn around the bed, I bared it. A little more than four hours after I had entered the Cancer Care clinic for the ‘harvest’, I was back on the street having a dart, waiting for the IT Genie to pick me up. This could not have gone better! It had sucked, I won’t lie, but it could have been so much worse!! Like it had been for the guy from the previous Monday I was told, his score had only been 3!!! For all I know, he might have been still in there with me on that Thursday.
The second stage of my treatment is over, done, finito!! It is in the books!! There is now just one stage remaining for the treatment of the Multiple Myeloma and that is the transplant. But that’s still three weeks away, so for now I’m putting it all to the back-burner, and taking a day off. I’m going to find something else to distract me, I wonder what’s in the news…