Thursday, 26 September 2013

Anthony Nolan: My Experience

As some of my family, friends and other ne'er-do-wells already know, I have recently donated material to the charity Anthony Nolan (formerly the Anthony Nolan Trust). Very recently, in fact; as I write this, I was in hospital only yesterday. I was also expecting to be in there earlier today, but in the event, I only had to undergo one session. It turns out I'm really good at donating stem cells.

For those who don't know, Anthony Nolan is a UK-based charity that works to provide treatment for sufferers of leukaemia and similar blood disorders. It's named after a young boy who died from a rare blood disease in 1979, aged only eight. Anthony's mother set up the original register for blood and bone marrow donors in 1974, from which it has developed into a major non-profit organisation.

I signed up to the register maybe ten years ago. I suspect there was a drive of some sort, I don't recall, but I do remember giving a blood sample for the register. Its even simpler these days - you only have to provide a saliva sample for a cell swab. They send 'spit kits' in the post. It's pretty amazing how much the system has developed even in the short time I've been on the list. There are two processes for the full donation, and the new, cutting edge technique from when I joined is the default method now. It's incredibly easy, mostly painless and really doesn't take much on the donor's part.

I received an email and phone call, out of the blue, a few months ago, saying that I was a potential match for a patient. I'd had this before, in fact, not long after joining up, and in that case, I had been phone to not be a close enough match to go forward. This time, though, after sending off some more blood samples to Anthony Nolan (through the post!), I was told that I was an excellent match for the patient, and to sit tight and wait for further communication. I was giving plenty of information on the donor process and the charity. At one point, it looked like I wouldn't be needed - there was another match, living closer, so he became the best choice purely on cost grounds, I guess - but he was emigrating, so it was down to me. One in depth physical and lots of questions later, I was signed up for the procedure. Easy.

There are, as I said, two methods for donation. The older, more invasive, method, is the direct removal of bone marrow for transplant. Not something I was keen to do, being somewhat petrified by the very idea of operations, but if it had to be done, I hope that I would have been able to go through with it. I don;t know. Thankfully, this is fairly rare now, and most donors undergo the second method, which is known as peripheral stem cell transplantation. In both cases, blood stem cells are removed from the donor for transplantation into the patient, whereupon the patient's body will start transforming them into healthy blood cells to replace their own diseased or damaged cells.

The peripheral method is incredibly easy on the patient. The actual procedure is less galling than the preparation, which involves a series on injections of a natural substance called GCSF (easy to remember if you're British and did GCSEs). This makes your bone marrow go into stem cell-producing overdrive, flooding your blood with the little thingies. It makes your bones ache, since they're super full of marrow and extra cells, and kind of tired and ill for a few days. It's not even as nasty as a bad cold. Four days of mild discomfort isn't so tough. Then it's off to hospital - King's College Hospital in London, in my case - for the harvesting procedure.

I arrived around eight yesterday morning, having been put up in a very nice hotel by Nolan. I was hooked up in a comfy bed, with a tube in each arm. The blood came out of my left arm, went into a centrifuge which separated it into its components, and then returned through my right arm, sans stem cells. There was a bag for the stem cells, a thick orange splodge (probably the trace red cells and platelets giving it that healthy ginger colour), a bag for extra plasma for a medium, and all the rest got plumbed back in, with a little added calcium for my boneses. It took four hours of sitting there, hooked up like a particularly unthreatening Borg. Perfectly comfortable except for a little stiffness in the left arm since it had to be kept straight, and a real need to get up and stretch my legs.

Anthony Nolan keep details of the patients and donors confidential, naturally, but I do know that the recipient of my cells is about twenty years older than me, male, and twice my size. For this reason, I was told I'd almost certainly have to do two sessions in order to get enough cells for the guy. However, it turns out that I have super-blood, and that I react extremely well to the GCSF. Absolutely loads of the stem cells came out. I'd nearly filled half the bag within two hours. So I got to take it easy today.

Everyone involved, from Anthony Nolan, Healthcare at Home who gave me my jabs, and the King's hospital staff, were extremely open, friendly and reassuring. The whole thing was a surprisingly painless experience - in fact, quite a pleasant one, since I got a little holiday in a nice hotel for my trouble. I learned some important things for if I do it again: don't take heavy books to read, because it's hard to hold them up when you're all tubed up; do wear comfortable clothes, because you'll be stuck in one place for a good few hours; and have plenty of meat and dairy to keep your protein and calcium levels up.

I'm now home, feeling quite tired still but otherwise fine. Having all your blood removed, spun round and puts back in again takes it out of you (literally), but otherwise, the only sign that I was ever involved is a tiny hole in my arm. Honestly, peeling the dressings off hurt more than the procedure. And somewhere, there's a big fifty-year-old bloke with leukaemia, and I might just have helped save his life.

To join the register, visit and sign up. They'll send you a spit kit through the post. Unlike the NHS Blood Register, there's no restriction on gay men donating, although you will get asked a lot of questions about your background and sexual history. It's all to assure the safety of both patients and donors, and Anthony Nolan never exempt someone from donating unless absolutely necessary. 

If you are pregnant, you may be interested to know that stem cells can also be removed from your baby's umbilical cord and the placenta, and that these can be donated too.

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