The Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Center of Winship Cancer Institute performed its first transplant in 1979. On Wed., Sept. 25, 2013, it performed its 4000th transplant.
What did that number mean to lymphoma patient Vicky Scott, who was one of three people receiving a transplant on Wednesday?
“It means that four thousand people get to be with their families, and get a new chance at life,” she said from her room in the special transplant unit.
Vicky, a retired nurse from Enterprise, Alabama, was waiting patiently with her husband Richard for unrelated donor bone marrow cells to arrive for her transplant. Although the infusion is a routine procedure, it is a special moment when the transplanted cells start coursing through the bloodstream and head for the bone marrow to re-start the body’s production of white blood cells.
“We have been able to really decrease risk and side effects with our supportive care and better medications,” said Dr. Jonathan Kaufman, who was on service that day in the unit. “By doing that we can open up transplant to a lot more patients.”
Duane Fulk and his wife Sue, in the room next to Vicky, didn’t have to wait long for his autologous transplant, meaning one with his own stem cells.
“I see this as the final treatment, eradication of the mantel cells, and us going forward without looking back over our shoulders,” said Sue, watching the transplant team perform her husband’s procedure. For members of the team, the 4000th transplant represents the fruition of decades of their experience and dedication to caring for patients.
Like many patients, Duane had a sudden onset of illness that signaled something was wrong. It’s been a year since he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma.
But Vicky has been struggling with auto-immune diseases for years, and in fact received an autologous stem cell transplant ten years ago in Colorado. She has some perspective on how dramatically the procedures and drugs have changed in ten years.
“It’s night and day,” she said. “I was so sick that first time, I didn’t think I was going to make it. This time, I’ve had virtually no side effects from the drugs and other than feeling weak from the disease, I’m in much better shape.”
As Duane neared the end of his transplant, a group of nurses came to his room to sing their own very special version of “Happy Birthday,” a ritual they’ve developed to mark what is for many, a re-birth day.
The lyrics of their song convey the excitement and possibilities of the transplant: “Happy, happy birthday, it’s time to start brand new!”
“The ability to get a transplant represents hope for survival, hope for getting back to life,” said Dr. Jonathan Kaufman.