Imagine being a patient who has been fighting leukemia and waiting for the next round of treatments to finally make a difference. Or being the spouse or parent of a loved one who has exhausted all treatment options for the form of blood cancer they have. The waiting and setbacks turn into desperation and heartache and a situation no family wants to endure. A miracle is needed and a miracle comes, found in the form of a stranger. More specifically, that miracle is found in the blood of a stranger.
A routine trip to the drugstore for Gina Welsh of Conway, was the first step in making a world of difference for a patient with hopes of a cure and a shot at a regular life.
"I went to Walgreen’s to pick up a prescription and was asked by the pharmacy staff if I would like to check to see if I could possibly be a donor for someone in need," she explained. "The whole thing only took a few minutes and consisted of a simple cheek swab and a bit of paperwork. "I had been told that the likelihood of being a match was less than one percent, so between that and how easy the process was, I didn’t think much of it until I got a call a few months later."
The call came from an employee with DKMS, an organization that matches donors with patients in need. Welsh was a match to a patient, whose doctor had decided on a stem cell transplant for a chance to provide a cure for the particular type of blood cancer for which he had been diagnosed. She was then made aware of the next steps that would be needed if she was to provide assistance for the patient.
"I was assigned a counselor who was absolutely wonderful," she said. "She explained in detail what the next steps were for me and walked me through everything that I’d experience."
That experience saw Welsh filling out a more in-depth packet of information to include any allergies or family health issues, some blood work taken to be sure she was free of illness and a double check to ensure that she was a positive match to the patient as well as a choice to make on whether she wanted to simply be a stem cell donor or a bone marrow donor as well. Welsh volunteered for both.
After evaluating all of the information and speaking with Welsh, she was flown to Washington, D.C. for an extended physical and after those results were in, the procedure was scheduled. Welsh said that the final measure that had to be taken to get her body ready for the procedure was a series of shots that had to be given at the same time for the five days prior to when her stem cells would be harvested. A local clinic stepped up to help Welsh be ready for the procedure.
"I went to Sherwood Urgent Care here in Conway and explained what I needed," she said. "The staff there were beyond helpful and were excited to be part of assisting me do what I could for the patient I was trying to help. I stopped in every morning on my way to work, got the shot and then went on with my day."
The day prior to the procedure, Welsh and her husband, Mike, traveled back to Washington to prepare for the procedure and met the hospital staff who were going to be with her in the morning. The next day, Welsh laid in bed for six hours as her blood was cycled through machines and her healthy stem cells were removed. However, she said the magnitude of what she had done didn’t become apparent until the next day when she was boarding the plane to make the trip home.
"Everyone had been so kind to me and even though they had walked me through what would physically happen to me, the emotional side of it made me a little teary," she confessed. "It was a simple process for me but is such a big deal for the patient. It is an overwhelming feeling knowing you have made a life-changing difference for a complete stranger."
According to Dr. Jamie Burton, an oncologist with CARTI, the transplant process is the best option to keep the patient in remission and effectively "cure" them of the illness.
"Generally, for acute leukemia, a patient is given an initial course of chemotherapy, which hopefully puts them into remission," Burton explained. "After a follow up bone marrow biopsy from the patient is taken and shows no residual leukemia, a transplant is sometimes indicated as a measure for long term cure."
Burton explained that the goal of the transplant is to cure the disease, but continued maintenance care and follow up with physicians would still be necessary, even if the transplant is effective. "A successful transplant depends on many factors, including the specific diagnosis for which a transplant is needed, or if the patient has any complications or other underlying medical condition," Burton said.
For Welsh, her hopes are that the patient she helped will be able to get back to living a normal life without the constant treatments needed to help combat the disease, but she may never know for sure how her gift affected the man she can’t get off her mind.
"I was told I have to wait six months before the organization will ask the patient if he would like to be in contact with me," she said. "I am hoping he says that he’d like to know me, but that is all up to him. It is killing me to know how he is doing, but when I went into this, I knew that I may never get to know."
However, Welsh says that even if the patient chooses not to communicate with her, she wouldn’t change a thing about her decision and she is willing to help as many people as she can.
"This couldn’t have been an easier process for me," she said. "I was not out any money, my work was fantastic and understanding when I told them what I was doing and my husband supported my decision from the moment I told him about it. This all started with a simple cheek swab. Some people are on the donor list for years without ever being called to help and I went through the whole process in a matter of months. I feel grateful to have been able to make a difference and I encourage others to sign up and see how they might be able to do the same."
For more information on becoming a donor, visit www.bethematch.org or www.deletebloodcancer.org.