A sick friend was the final drop: blood donor Afke registered as a stem cell donor, a very special form of donation.
She had seen a brochure about stem cell donation at the blood bank before. This special form of blood donation became pressing when a friend became seriously ill. The doctors were afraid it was leukaemia. In patients with a malignant bone marrow disease, such as leukaemia, the production of healthy blood stem cells is disrupted. A stem cell transplantation with stem cells from a healthy donor is often the only way to survive the disease.
Down to the last detail
Afke Hartog decided to register as a stem cell donor with the blood bank. During her next visit, she donated an extra tube of blood for testing. For a stem cell donation, the blood is analysed very carefully. The blood of both recipient and donor must match down to the last detail. The data are stored in a database. If a patient needs new stem cells somewhere in the world, the database is checked for a donor with suitable blood. Because the blood has to be so similar, finding a suitable donor can be very difficult. Over 14 million donors are registered across the world. Despite this, it is impossible to find a suitable donor for a quarter of patients. As a result, the likelihood of a stem cell donor being asked to donate is also very small. Afke knew that. "But I did hope I would receive a call one day. That's why you register."
A few months after her registration, the telephone rang. There was a seriously ill patient who might be helped by Afkes stem cells. New tests had shown she was the most suitable donor. She remembers her excitement. "It was going to happen!"
At the Radboud UMC in Nijmegen, forty litres of blood were filtered for two days. This was done using the same technique used for plasma donation. In this case, the filters remove stem cells from the blood. The red blood cells are returned to the donor. Stem cell donation is a much bigger burden than a normal blood donation, but surrounded with a great deal of care. Afke was screened extensively and found to be in perfect health. She hardly had any side-effects of the treatment.
The patient's name and city are kept confidential from the stem cell donor to ensure privacy for both patient and donor. But Afke knew how important her unique donation was during treatment. "I met the parents of a little boy who had just received stem cells during my stay in the hospital. They thanked me as a proxy for that anonymous donor. I could see their gratitude. I have managed to give that kind of happiness somewhere in the world. And what did it cost me? A small amount of effort, nothing more. I really hope more donors register. Because it is so difficult to find suitable stem cells, it is important to have as many donors as possible." There is one question that still remains unanswered: did the woman who received her stem cells make it? She is still waiting for a phone call with the answer.