Since 2008 I have served as the Associate Medical Director and the Medical Director of Transfusion Medicine in a large academic medical center. In addition to overseeing the operations of our transfusion service, I also spend several days per week in our apheresis unit. We currently see between 10-20 patients daily for a wide range of therapeutic apheresis procedures performed by our 5 apheresis nurses including stem cell collection and lymphapheresis procedures for stem cell transplant and CarTcell therapy, respectively. These procedures can last from 90 minutes to 6 hours and includes both outpatients as well as acutely ill patients in our critical care units. Typically we perform procedures from 8 AM to 6 PM but there are frequent requests for procedures that last beyond these hours and occasionally in the middle of the night for life threatening conditions. Despite the long hours and unpredictable days, this provides an opportunity to bond with patients over the hours and days they spend in our apheresis unit.
I remember the first time I met Reed. He was sitting on the side of his hospital bed and was bald and pale in stark contrast to his dark blue pajamas. Although he was thin, I could tell that he was a much bigger man before chemotherapy and the transplant ravaged his body. I introduced myself and he was pleasant and engaging despite how ill he was. He had recently undergone 2 autologous stem cell transplants and now with recurrence of the multiple myeloma he had received his brother’s stem cells and was suffering severe acute graft vs. host disease (GVHD). His entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract was under assault as he was diagnosed with Grade IV GI GVHD and was losing liters of bloody stool daily. Despite the abdominal pain and cramps, I never saw him without a smile on his face. He had been treated with high doses of immunosuppression but his GVHD was unresponsive and now we were called in to perform photopheresis, which has great results for skin and pulmonary GVHD but has not been as effective for GI GVHD. In fact, all our previous patients with Grade IV GI GVHD lost their battle.
The bone marrow transplant physician advised Reed that his prognosis was poor and that he should get his affairs in order. His response to the BMT physician was, I am not leaving my wife to raise our three children by herself and I am going to walk out of this hospital. We performed photopheresis twice a week every week and gradually his symptoms improved. His hair started growing back, his color returned, and he kept his word and walked out of the hospital. He continued photopheresis twice a week every two weeks for 2 years. During that time, he met my son who was only 8 at the time and I met his wife and children. He always asked how my son was every time he came for his treatment and what activities he was involved in. When he finished his 2 years of photopheresis, he brought every pathologist and nurse a long stem red rose and thanked us for saving his life.
Several years later, Reed started to experience renal failure as another complication of GVHD and again he was referred to our clinic for plasmapheresis. We picked up where we left off during his weekly treatments. Again, his positive attitude and compliance with treatment were successful in saving his kidneys. This past summer I went to an outdoor concert. At the end of the night, when everyone was leaving, I saw Reed and his wife! I was so happy to see him looking healthy and strong. I introduced him to everyone who was with me, telling them that Reed was our miracle patient, the only patient that survived Grade IV GI GVHD. This fall, a card was delivered to my office. It was a birthday card from Reed to celebrate my 50th birthday! That is so typical of Reed, still thinking about others and wanting to do what he can to show how important others are to him!!
-Kimberly Sanford, MD is the Medical Director of Transfusion Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Health.