Published on April 21, 2020
Of the estimated 77,240 people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) this year, many will be eligible for a stem cell transplant. During this process, stem cells, which generate all other specialized cells, are taken from either the bone marrow or the bloodstream. They are frozen and stored while the patient undergoes high doses of chemotherapy, or other intense treatments, and then transplanted back into the patient’s body, where they generate new, healthy cells.
The two types of stem cell transplants are autologous (using the patient’s own cells) and allogeneic (using cells from a donor).
Isolation Before, During and After
The very nature of a stem cell transplant involves bringing a patient’s immune system down to zero in order to build it back up. Stem cell patients are at high risk of infection during this process and should have very limited and controlled contact with other people. While many of us are getting used to social distancing these days in light of the coronavirus pandemic, stem cell patients and their families know all about it.
When my mother was treated for double-hit NHL, a B-cell malignancy, at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, she was placed in the transplant unit, not because she was a candidate for that treatment yet, but because they had room and she was very sick. There were special ventilation units in each room, with industrial-grade HEPA filters to enhance filtration of spores. When visiting, we were asked to leave purses in a locker, scrub up like surgeons, and wear double gowns, face masks and gloves. Every time we left the room and returned, we donned new gloves. I’m reminded of the transplant unit when I go to the grocery store these days. The healthy are protecting the sick, and isolation is one of the best practices to make that happen.
Like Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Patients have to wait until they are healthy enough candidates to have the stem cell transplant. This can mean waiting days, weeks or even months. The television may be on, but even that can get boring. Books, online games, and video chats with friends and family are great ways to pass the time and help bring the patient back into the fold of everyday life. Almost any distraction is a good one. My mom loved getting mail from friends. We read card after card with her. At one point, we were laughing at a funny joke someone wrote, and I started sweating profusely. The gowns, while thin, are hot. Guests should dress in light layers.
One day, I was in the family waiting room when a patient walked in. It turned out he lived only miles from my parents, and we talked about the beach in south New Jersey where I grew up. It was a great day. He was recovering from his transplant, walking along the hallway to get his strength up while wearing the same safety gear we had on. He would soon go home to his family and friends, ending the isolation and boredom that can come with all of the waiting around. But, as my family and I learned, a healthy outcome is very much worth the wait and the isolation.
Questions for Your Medical Team
If you are considering a stem cell transplant, make a list of questions to ask your medical team so that you are ready if and when the time comes.
- What do I need to do to prepare for the transplant?
- How long will I be in the hospital?
- Can I have visitors?
- Is it safe for kids to visit?
- What special precautions do visitors need to take?
- What happens after the transplant?
- How long will I have to wait before going outside?
- When can I go home?
~Lauren Evoy Davis
Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
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