It was essentially the eleventh hour, and my nephrologist was leaving me messages on my cell phone. The messages went something like this: “I spoke to Dr. F, and he has told me that getting the stem cell treatment will be very risky and dangerous for you. He said the other patient did not get well because of the stem cell treatment. She got well because she stopped doing whatever was making her sick.”
After researching and preparing for months, it was now, the evening before I was supposed to leave for Trinidad, that my doctor was telling me this. The interfering doctor, Dr. F, was not my doctor. He was the doctor of the patient, who had gotten the same treatment at one of the same clinic two years ago, and had recovered enough to come off dialysis. I’d spoken to this patient several times, and had no doubt that the stem cell treatment helped her regain kidney function.
Why would this doctor say such things? Perhaps it was his financial interest in his business as a co-owner of a dialysis center, or that he wanted to cover himself legally. Perhaps it was his lack of knowledge about stem cell medicine. Maybe it was that he hadn’t ever gotten around to reading the documented evidence the patient had given him after treatment. Or it could’ve been that he caught wind of and read the article about me in the newspaper a few days before my departure.
Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. What he was doing and saying was preposterous. The history of the other patient was that she’d had an MRI with contrast dye to get a clearer image of her colon, and shortly thereafter her kidneys failed. It is well known by doctors that contrast dye can cause permanent kidney damage, and this is stated on the form you have to sign before getting an MRI. I’ve seen it myself. I was almost accidentally given an MRI with contrast dye earlier this year, when my doctor wanted a better picture of my bladder and kidneys. If I hadn’t pointed out to the staff at the radiology center, that my nephrologist would never want me to have contrast dye, then there would have been more damage caused to my kidneys.
I did not heed the warnings of Dr. F, and on Wednesday, August twenty-second I returned to the clinic for my adult stem cell treatment. The actual machine is about the size of a large desktop printer. I could fit it on my kitchen counter at home. Seeing it now, and knowing that it will dramatically alter my life, generates feelings I can’t describe. Feelings of excitement, anxiety, awe, and anticipation. I am grateful that my boyfriend will be with me the entire duration of the treatment.
When I travel I commonly take my mala with me. The string of one hundred and eight sandalwood beads, which I use for mantras and prayer, reminds me of my connection with the Divine. The same nurse, that I met the first day, comes into the treatment room. Because she sees my mala, we end up talking about mantras, and I learn that her life story must be incredible. She is originally from Rwanda, and a survivor of genocide. It is remarkable, that even after what she’s been through, she believes that everything is connected. It is also what I believe: all life is connected and comes from the same source.
Making this type of connection reassures me. Electrodes are stuck to my chest, and a blood pressure cuff is placed around my left arm. The heart monitoring machine begins to take readings. Dr. K enters the room, and supervises, as the nurse gives me a shot of local anesthetic before putting the needle for the intravenous line into my right arm. I’d been told that the needle would be very large, and I look away before they begin. I feel the brief pain of the anesthetic , and then nothing. There is absolutely no pain as the needle goes in. I only wish I’d had this experience with all the other i.v. needles, that had been used on me in the hospitals. Sometimes the medical care you receive outside the United States is superior and more palliative.
Grasping a squeezable orange ball in my right hand, I laid in the medical bed watching as another nurse began to set up the machine. The top of it opened up, and inside the lid was a digital screen. My total blood volume had been calculated based on my weight and height. I was asked to gently squeeze the ball for the first extraction. I watched as my blood left through the i.v. line’s plastic tube and went into the machine, where it was separated by the centrifuge. There were three empty i.v. bags attached to the machine, and I saw each one begin to fill with different components of my blood: plasma, stem cells, and other cells. After the first extraction, my plasma and other cells (such as white blood cells) were returned to me through the same line. It could take up to four hours to complete the process of cycles of extractions and returns.
The nurses and doctor monitored me closely during the procedure. Only the tingling in odd places, like my face, hands and feet, bothered me while I patiently kept my arm still. I didn’t want to displace or upset the effectiveness of the i.v. needle. I could feel it pressing against me inside, but there was zero pain. Chewing on a few tums helped alleviate the tingling caused by the blood thinner. The air conditioner hummed, keeping the room cool in the tropical heat of the island. I refrained from drinking or eating anything, since I knew I couldn’t get out of bed until it was over. More of my stem cells continued to collect in the bag on the side of the machine next to me.
Two and a half hours later I was done. They had completed thirteen cycles, one more than the twelve it took to process all of my blood. No problems. No pain. The effects of the blood thinner quickly wore off. Roughly one hundred and ten milliliters of stem cells are collected during this type of treatment. I’ve been an overachiever most of my life, and today was no exception. Over two hundred stem cells had been harvested from my blood. Millions and millions of stem cells now sat in the bag, activated and ready to go to work.
Liquid gold. This is how I defined the bag of my stem cells. All my cells had stayed in the safety of the sterile bags, and nothing ever left the room. There was no manipulation by a lab. The bag of tiny miracles was removed from the machine and suspended at the top of an i.v. pole. It only took about twenty minutes for my stem cells to be returned to me. I felt nothing remarkable, and sat up on the bed right after the needle was removed. Wow! It was all done, and it was much easier than I had expected or anticipated.
Dr. K reminded me that I might feel tired for a couple of days, and to get enough rest. When I went back home, I would have to be closely monitored by my doctors. Regular testing would indicate when I could reduce my dialysis time, and then come off of dialysis completely.
Getting a stem cell treatment isn’t like taking an antibiotic, from which you get better after seven to ten days. Not enough data has been collected yet to tell you how soon I will notice a difference. I am one of a handful of people, who decided to leap into her future by having an adult stem cell treatment. Pioneer is now another word I will use to describe myself. May my foray into the relatively unknown inspire thousands of others to raise the dialogue about stem cell medicine, and investigate it for themselves.
Creation doesn’t happen overnight. I wait patiently for my stem cells to repair the damaged tissue in my kidneys. In the meantime, my prayers will go on, and I will begin to plan for the day the catheter is removed from my chest.