november 29, 2019

Christiane Rochon

Ready to Work

Stem cells? They’re just cells that don’t have a real job yet.

What are stem cells? Think of them as interns. Young, fresh and ready to work to the bone. One day, they’ll settle on a career and become highly specialized in what they do. But for now, they’re ready to take on any task you throw their way. And as we all know, interns are under-appreciated…until you get buried under an avalanche of work, and suddenly that bright-eyed intern becomes a saviour. The same can be said of stem cells: they’ve been there the whole time, but you don’t really give them any thought, until someone in your life desperately needs someone else’s stem cells just to survive. And then. That moment you realize you know nothing about stem cells—which, as it happens, is precisely as much as you bothered to learn about that intern before being handing them a stack of files.

Becoming A Donor Is Easier Than You Think

What’s the deal with stem cells?

I’ll be honest. Before we went to the media with Mai’s story, none of us had any clue that stem cells were so important. None of us. It’s crazy. Every one of us has the very real possibility of saving a life or two, but we’ve never learned anything about it. We’ve been trained since birth to fasten our seatbelts, and we don’t even have to think twice about signing our organ donor cards. But stem cell donation? Well, it could be that way too, if only people knew it was a thing they could and should do.

When it comes down to it, becoming a stem cell donor is stupid easy. A quick swab of the cheek takes all of 10 minutes. That’s a mere 10 minutes to save someone’s life. Literally. In just 10 minutes, you’re registered as a donor, and then you can attend to whatever more important things you were doing, like swiping left on Tinder, untangling your headphones or sharing your kale smoothie recipe. 10 minutes.

Let’s Go Through This Step By Step

The Process

Okay, so what happens if your DNA matches someone who’s sick? I’ll walk you through it. Your phone will ring. You’ll answer. And you’ll be happy as f*ck—because saving someone’s life is not something you get to do every day now, is it? The doctors will run some tests to make sure you’re in good health, because they want the donation to be easy for you, and they want to make sure the patient’s body will easily accept it. And if you pass the tests? Hell yeah! They’ll ask you one last time if you’re sure you want to go through with it. This part is really important, because if you agree at this stage, the doctors will start getting the patient ready for the transplant. Meaning, huge doses of chemo and radiation to kill off the patient’s stem cells and the malfunctioning bone marrow that produces them. It’s probably one of the hardest things a person can ever put their body through. So once you give the final thumbs up, there’s no backing out. A person can only survive up to 5 days without bone marrow, so this person’s life is literally now in your hands.

At the same time the patient is busy having their bone marrow annihilated, you’ll be given medication to stimulate your body’s stem cell production. Your body will be producing more stem cells than anyone really needs—kind of like how Nickelback produces more songs that anyone really needs. People who’ve gone through it say they felt a tad bloated, like their veins were full. And that makes sense, because your veins are literally full to the brim. After a few days, you’ll be ready for action, and so will the patient. And thus begins the most selfless thing you’ll ever do.

The Donation Process Demystified

Then And Now

In the old days, they’d knock you out with anaesthesia, because the only option was to drill into your lower back (WTF?) and remove a litre of bone marrow (who would have thought there was that much in there?!?). Then you’d get some scary-looking bruises on your lower back, threatening to overshadow your regrettable Chinese character tattoo (it was cool in the ’90s, okay?). But luckily for us, technology has gotten a lot better, and now you just get hooked up to an apheresis machine, which separates all the stuff in your blood, takes just what’s needed and then puts back the rest. It’s basically like getting your blood taken, but over a couple hours. At this point, your stem cells are like a pack of alpha male interns at their first office party—overly excited, ready to get the party started and eager to be BFFs with the important people. There will be a tube in one of your arms drawing out your blood, which then spins around in a centrifuge. The stem cells are separated out, and the remaining blood is returned to you through a tube in your other arm. You’ll be awake the whole time, you can watch your favourite TV show, and you have a nurse taking care of you as though you were royalty. It’s not so different from a lazy Sunday where you decide to throw on your sweatpants, turn on Netflix and veg out, and your mom pops by with some tomato sauce (thanks Mom!). And there’s another bonus: those hideous hospital gowns? You don’t have to wear one.

Donating Stem Cells Is No Big Deal

The Bottom Line

When it’s all over, you haven’t lost anything, because you didn’t actually need the stem cells that were collected. Well, okay, technically, you’ve lost a few hours of your day, but all things considered, that’s barely something to complain about. And the next day, when you’re back to your regular life and look in the mirror, the only difference you’ll see is a big halo over your head. Because buddy, you’ve just saved someone’s life.

There are really only advantages to being a stem cell donor: giving someone another chance at life, stuffing your face with cookies at the hospital’s expense, earning bragging rights for years to come, being treated like a hero by just about everyone…and stretching out your “recovery” by a day or two to make a long weekend out of it (and if your boss gives you any trouble about taking time off, then they’re kind of a jerk).

So, if you are between 18 and 35 years old, register to be a stem cell donor! It would be so dumb to deprive a fellow human being of your excellent stem cells, especially since you now know that donating them is no big deal. At your job, you’re used to being a team player and helping people out. So send that intern over to your co-worker who needs it more than you.

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