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  • Writer's pictureSally Kalksma

The Big Day

Sunday is "The Big Day". I’m not talking about Groundhog Day, although I am curious to see how much longer winter will last. I’m also not talking about the Super Bowl either, but I can’t wait to watch the big game. What am I talking about? It’s my 3rd Re-Birthday! The day I was given a second chance at life. On February 2, 2017, I had an autologous stem cell transplant (SCT).

So what’s an SCT? It’s a modern form of voodoo to keep you in remission longer—I became the voodoo doll. First, the medicine men have to poke the voodoo doll in every conceivable spot for 6 months. During this time they also administer a very complex cocktail of various drugs, including FOUR types of chemotherapy. Then if you’re lucky enough you can poke yourself with the pins (needles) for two weeks straight while administering the drugs yourself. (Neupogen, a drug to help you build back up your white cell count. All the cells they just knocked out of you.) And just as the ritual can't seem to go on any longer, as long as all has gone according to plan, there is one last act. One more, super fun, step before your SCT. Collecting whatever good cells you have in you for the actual procedure. This is called "The Harvest."

Just like you'd imagine a scene from any sci-fi movie, they put a 2 prong port in your neck to harvest your cells. These ports are hooked to a machine that looks like it belongs on the set of "Lost in Space", and sounds like a washing machine that has a lopsided load of towels in the spin cycle. This machine takes your blood via one port in your neck and spins your collected blood to separate the plasma, the white cells & the red cells. It saves the plasma and white cells and deposits them into separate bags while returning the remaining red cells from your blood back into your body via the other port but not until after the machine warms the cells back up for you. This ball of fun lasts until they gather 9 million good cells, or enough for three transplants! How long does it take to gather 9 million "good cells"? Some patients are lucky enough to collect all the cells they need in one day. I wasn’t one of them. I was there for a full week.

Being a sci-fi, dark magic, pin cushion experiment cumulated when the doctors put a "PICC line" in my arm. PICC is an acronym for a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter, and it is, for lack of better words a tube that runs from a smaller vein in the upper arm and terminates in a larger vein in the chest near the heart. This port was used to administer all-new healthy cells in my body, the SCT!

Laughter truly is the best medicine, well at least it worked and continues to work wonders for me. I can find humor in ALMOST anything. For instance, l immediately joked around after my transplant by sporting a hat with hair attached to it. I told everyone in the room that the transplant was such a success that my hair immediately grew back! As the staff at The University of Penn Hospital waited patiently to see if my body would actually accept this next stage of treatment, I did what I do best and decided to plan and throw a party... in my hospital room!

I planned my upcoming Super Bowl party, which was 3 days away, from my hospital bed. What better place than my increasingly lonely room to have a party? Since technically I was going to need to be in isolation for 3 weeks I had a large private room, with my own bathroom. The long ledge along the window sill was perfect for the buffet. Being a perfect hostess, my refrigerator was already stocked with beer for my visitors. I also had some hard alcohol hidden in my closet for anyone who preferred a mixed drink. I had plenty of ginger ale, orange juice, cranberry juice and for those crazy enough, Ensure, all “borrowed” from the community kitchen on my floor. It seemed too easy! The only thing I lacked was food or at least good food. I wouldn’t dare subject my guests to leftover hospital food and saltines! I called my sister, Jo, who was kind enough to deliver wings and subs to my party, which had a wonderful turnout of friends and family. Just what I needed to get me over the hump after all those pricks, sticks, pokes, and more.

For some reason, the hospital staff checked on me a little more than usual that night. Can you imagine why?

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