The transplant and initial complications are past; now we need to watch and pray

I’ve been putting up a lot of short posts (I’ve primarily been using my old iPhone), and now I’ll just summarize the events of the past couple of days. There are photos throughout the posts that appear down below.

Beth received her transplant, from 9:45-10:30 on Wednesday evening, December 14th. She received a very high number of stem cells (the range is 4 million to 8 million cells per Kg of body weight) — she had a young, strong donor, and she got the 8 million.

After the infusion of the new stem cells, she had a somewhat violent reaction, which lasted most of the night and the next day. Her fever went up to 103. Everyone’s initial response (all the medical folks) was that she was having an infection, and that is an appropriate place to look. Beth’s response was not common, but it happens. She seems to have settled down from that. They are continuing to give her two different antibiotics, Vancomycin, for staph infections, and Cefepime, which is good for pneumonia.

The next challenge will be that the effects of the chemotherapy (and I’m guessing they mean the Busulfan) really kick in on days 7-10. So we should be entering that phase now.

The purpose of the chemo was to destroy Beth’s existing bone marrow. This doesn’t happen all at once, but it happens over these 7-10 days. One of the doctors said that the existing marrow, while not yet “destroyed”, has been affected by the chemo and is not able to reproduce itself. And that’s where the new cells came in.

The new cells will begin to grow into new bone marrow. In the next couple of weeks, doctors will be looking for signs of engraftment, which occur probably during days 7-10 after the transplant. (These 7-10 days are different from the days 7-10 of chemo.)

30 days down the road, they will do another bone marrow biopsy and Chimerism testing to make certain that existing bone marrow is 100% donor and 0% Beth. If it’s something other than that, it would be a bad sign.

So we are not yet out of the woods. There is a 35% chance of relapse. But we know, too, that during the conditioning phase and afterward (by tweaking the response to the graft-vs-host effect – the effect by which the new tissues perceive Beth’s old marrow as enemy and continue to destroy it), the hope is that we achieve that 100% cure. But it’ll be a year or two before we know that.

Last night was an infusion-related response

A couple of the doctors visited this afternoon, and it seems as if Beth had an infusion-related response. That is, she received what is regarded to be a “large number” of stem cells — it was a 400 ml infusion, and she received 8 million cells (!) per kilogram of her body weight (!). So that put the total volume of stem cells. (Since Beth is about 65 kg, that’s more than 500 million cells!)

So the response she had last night is not likely to occur again. What will happen is that the harsher effects of the chemo (tiredness, etc.) will show up 7-10 days after her first bit of chemo.

Today is the day

Today is the day we’ve been waiting for. It’s the day of our “bone marrow transplant” (or “stem cell transplant”). It’s “day zero”.

We talked with the transplant coordinator yesterday. The donor gave “plenty” of stem cells in one day, and everything else went fine. The donor “made lots of cells” – It’s “just what we wanted”. So as I write this, they should be on an international flight – the “bag” that the cells come in is a very small one.

If you think of a one-pint transfusion, which might take a couple of hours, the new stem cells should take about five minutes to transfuse into her. The entire thing is anticlimactic, compared with all the other things that have been going on. The “transplant” should occur some time after 7:00 pm tonight.

A few more things we learned yesterday

Now that a donor has been recruited, Dr. Rossetti thinks that we will be able to “have stem cells by mid December”. No dates are firm yet, but we should be able to have a firm schedule in place by the end of next week.

Beth’s blood counts continue to be critically low – her white blood cells yesterday fell below 1.0 (“.94”) for the first time since I’ve been watching the numbers. And as I noted, her hemoglobin was 7.2, and her platelets were only 18 (again, lowest I’ve seen them). So today, Tuesday, she’ll go to Jefferson Hospital for her (7th of 7) injections of Vidaza, for two or more units of blood, and also, for platelets.

Beth’s bone marrow is defective, and every stem cell she produces is defective, and so the goal over the next few weeks (including the “intensive chemotherapy” and radiation) will be to bring her “as close to zero bone marrow” as she can get. The Vidaza, while not enabling her to produce good blood cells as promised, has at least gotten her most of the way there already. And that’s a good thing. [Also a “God” thing, as I had written at first.] The reason you want all of it gone is to reduce the chances of relapse down the road. And in addition to the “intensive chemotherapy”, the full body irradiation “cuts relapse rates 20%”, according to Dr. Rossetti. Every little bit helps.

Once the new stem cells are transplanted, then Beth’s numbers should begin to go in the right direction. Her white cells should begin to recover within 2-3 weeks. Engraftment should occur on or before day 30. Hemoglobin production should start in about three months. Anti-rejection drugs will be administered between days 35 and 90 – more or less to either to control or enable some “graft-vs-host” (GVH) effect. To some degree, the GVH has a “mopping up” effect – the immunity of the new stem cells will target and destroy any remaining defective bone marrow, or any remaining defective stem cells.

Too much, to be sure, can cause problems. But this is what the donor search has been all about: matching on precisely the right DNA characteristics, to give just enough, but not too much, GVH.