What Happens During a BMT

BMT survivor
Friday, May 19, 2017 - 2:43pm

In December 2015, after one and half years of being in remission from acute myeloid leukemia (AML), I relapsed. In January 2016, I was told that my best chance of long-term survival was to get a stem cell transplant, also known as blood and marrow transplant, or BMT.

Since allogeneic transplants are not performed in London, Ontario, my doctor, Dr. Xenacostas, recommended that I go to Roswell Park. Roswell Park has a stellar reputation, so I was grateful, as a Canadian patient, to have the opportunity of getting a BMT there.

On February 23, 2016, my wife and I arrived at Roswell Park for what was probably the most important meeting of my life. It was our orientation and examination day. This was to review whether I was qualified and fit for the BMT and whether I was still in remission. I felt reassured after meeting Dr. McCarthy and his very competent staff.

On March 14, 2016, I was admitted and began a seven-day regimen of chemotherapy. During this period, the chemo was destroying my existing stem cells. Seven days later, chemo was over, and it was my day of rest.

On March 22, 2016, the day of my stem transplant (known as Day #0), I had a visit from a counselor to help me with the fear factor and emotional stress. Then the moment of truth arrived with the bag of my new stem cells. The whole process took a few hours. Knowing that my nurse, my caregiver and God were at my side, I felt in good hands. I slept through the whole ordeal and, afterward, the whole thing felt a little anticlimactic because the procedure (which in itself is not particularly dramatic) goes smoothly.

Many specialists flowed in and out of my room during the weeks that followed the transplant. They tested my blood, checked for mouth sores, fevers and signs of Graft versus Host Disease (GVHD). The doctors and nurses said that some GVHD was good – as it attacked any left over leukemia cells. However, the main thing was to control and stabilize any major GVHD attack. I was kept informed and the medical staff watched for any issues with my lungs, heart, skin or gastrointestinal track. I was put on antibiotics and an antimicrobial diet until such time that my immune system, which was compromised, was restarted by my new stem cells.

I can’t say that there were no glitches. On the day that I was to be released from the hospital (after four weeks there), I developed an odd cough and had to stay as the medical staff were checking it thoroughly. They took precautionary tests and sent me for a bronchoscopy; a chest x-ray and CT lung scan to determine whether it was GVHD of the lung. I was given more antibiotics and placed on inhalers. After a few weeks, the cough subsided, and I was released with the stipulation that I continue with the inhalers/puffers and monitor myself for any changes.

Getting a BMT isn’t an easy ride. There were, and still are, tough moments and days. I was fortunate to stay in a nearby BMT apartment at the Kevin Guest House.

The next 70 days of post-BMT transplant were important and stressful as this period was outside of Roswell Park. During the post-BMT transplant weeks, there are many rules, restrictions, medications and self-monitoring for GVHD. However, it’s a part of the process during which there is much support and guidance.

This February 8, I celebrated my 60th birthday. On that day, I was filled with immense gratitude for the many people who made this birthday possible, especially Dr. McCarthy and his dedicated team--whom I've still been able to see on a regular basis. I’m also grateful to Dr. Xenacostas and the London team who continue to provide my medical treatment.

And on March 22 I celebrated my first “new birthday.” It was one year since the transplant. And another milestone to mark!

At the end of May, I am planning to meet with my donor in my hometown, Niagara Falls, Ontario. We have been sending email messages to one another since Easter. As with so many moments in the past year and a half, I am certain that our meeting will be a most memorable one!