The Student spoke to recent stem cell donor Will Briant about his donation experience and why more students should donate.
How did you feel when Anthony Nolan got in touch with you about the possibility of donating?
Anthony Nolan got in touch with me about six months ago and said I might be a match. So, they sent me a blood test kit, which I took to the GP to give them slightly better blood samples so they could make sure that I was the best match for this patient. Then I waited patiently until about December, when they got back in touch with me saying I had come up as the best match. So, I felt really excited. When you sign up you know it is such a small chance of being picked, so to actually be picked feels really exciting and as it was before Christmas it felt quite exciting that the patient might find out before Christmas that they were getting a donation.
After that, I had a medical at a hospital, which was quite thorough to make sure that I was all alright. So, I had a couple more blood tests, all the basic medical checks and then I waited a week to find out I was doing it. Then I waited two more weeks and it was over. So, the actual process from when I heard I was the match really happened quite fast.
Have you ever donated anything like blood before?
I was a platelets donor before this and when I can, after this, I will go back to that. Platelet donation is also something which we try to promote through EUBBT because it is kind of like giving blood, but you can do it every four weeks instead of every three months and it takes about an hour rather than 10 minutes. But, it is really important for people in hospitals to have and so it is a really great thing to do, particularly for students because we are in the same place for a few years so you can rack up quite a lot of donations. Unfortunately, they only sign up men at the moment to do that due to the amount of blood volume, but anyone can donate blood as long as they are medically able.
What kind of donation did you make?
I donated over four million of my stem cells. Basically, that is for a patient with blood cancer, leukaemia or a blood disease who has lost the ability to make stem cells themselves, because stem cells are very powerful cells that can become any cell.
So, I was a very close genetic match to someone which means that my stem cells should work in their body. It is one of the last treatments that they can try, but if it is successful, which it is in half of the cases, it can be really successful and they can have the rest of a normal life, which is amazing to think that is a possibility.
Can you describe the experience of the donation?
So, you have four days of injections before the donation itself. A professional nurse comes to your house with all the injections, they were all really amazing, really lovely people. These injections are called Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (GCSF) and they mobilise the stem cells into your bloodstream. You feel a bit fluey and achy, I had a bit of lower back pain, a few headaches and a bit of a fever at points. But, it was just like having the flu, so I had four days on the sofa, paracetamol made it a lot better and it was quite nice to feel a bit pampered for four days. There is an emergency medical line, so if you are feeling worried about it at any time of day, you get straight in touch with them and I had a few queries and they were all answered within five minutes, so I felt very safe whilst doing it.
Then, on the fifth day, you go to a special hospital and basically lie in a bed for about five hours with two needles, one in each arm. They filter out the stem cells that they have mobilised into the blood and you see them collecting in a bag next to you, which is quite a weird sight because they are bright pink. After five hours, they count them all up, give you and your companion a really nice lunch and then tell you whether they have enough because if they don’t they might ask you to come back the next day to do a second donation.
I should mention that they pay for all your travel and accommodation and pay for a friend to come down so you feel very well supported the whole way through, which is called peripheral blood stem cell collection, which happens nine times out of 10, so one time out of 10 they take the stem cells from your bone marrow itself and you go under general anaesthetic for that, but that happens quite rarely and it is always because the patient needs it for a specific reason. When we sign people up, we make sure that they are happy to do both because you need to be able to do both to be on the register, and therefore to be able to donate.
Why is it important for students to be on the bone marrow register?
Students make really great donors because younger donors are healthier and will be on the register for longer. Secondly, we are a really diverse group and it is good to sign up as many people as possible because it gives people from minority ethnic backgrounds a better chance of finding a match.
Will you find out who you donated to?
What happens is, after six months, Anthony Nolan requests an update on the patient on your behalf. Because your donation can go anywhere in the world, some countries don’t allow an update, so you just have to wait and see. If everything has been successful you can potentially send letters to each other or even meet in the future. It is something to potentially look forward to for the patient, but at this stage they are focused on recovery.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the experience?
It was honestly one of the best things that I have ever done. I know that that sounds hyperbolic, but the whole experience was so, so fulfilling. I felt like I was really doing something special, because there are very few other times that you can say that you have tried to save someone’s life. I would just say, if you are at all inspired to try to sign up or are unable to sign up, then please consider donating money or spreading the word. Unfortunately, people think that it’s a scary procedure and it really is not. It is great to be able to spread the word about it and make it more appealing to people. The guidelines for donating stem cells are different from those for donating blood, so even if you haven’t been able to donate blood you might be able to sign up to the register, and potentially save a life!
Image: Will Briant via Harry Vavasour