What is it like to donate stem cells?

On paper, stem cell donation can sound a bit intimidating.

While donating blood may be easy to visualize, stem cells feel more abstract. The name conjures images of microscopes, laboratories, and horribly invasive procedures.

I am happy to report that there was nothing horrible about my experience at all! And while it was not exactly a walk in the park — more a run in a wood — it is something that I would encourage folks to consider if they are able to do so.

I can’t remember exactly when it was that I signed up on the stem cell register but 12 years ago feels about right.

At the time, I was working at a local hospital booking day surgery appointments for people. One day, some people from the charity came in to try and sign National Health Service employees and medical students up. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, and so my name was added to the register, joining over 800,000 others.

The charity in question was the British organization Anthony Nolan. They work to provide stem cells and bone marrow donations to patients with forms of blood cancer or blood disorders. The charity also supports research into new treatments for other conditions.

To call stem cells “useful” would be doing them a disservice.

Stem cells are cells that do not yet have a specific role within the body. When they divide, they have the potential to develop into cells with a specific function. This process is known as differentiation. Each of the many different specialized cells of the adult human body were stem cells, to begin with.

Doctors and scientists can use stem cells to help treat certain conditions. Skin stem cells can aid with tissue regeneration to treat skin damage, and blood stem cells can form a crucial part of treatment for blood diseases such as leukemia.

Not only that, but researchers can also use stem cells in studies to either find out the causes of certain diseases or to develop drug treatments for conditions.

A few months ago, I received a phone call asking if I would be interested in donating some cells to be used in a study.

With my consent given over the phone, it was time for me to move into uncharted territory.

The possibility of donating stem cells had always just been that: a possibility, a thought, an idea.

Certainly nothing as concrete or tangible as a trip up from Brighton to London for a health check.

Clinical staff provided more detailed information about what was coming so that I could provide written consent. Questions were asked to assess my likelihood of carrying any bloodborne diseases. Blood and urine samples were taken, my body mass index (BMI) was measured, and a COVID-19 test was carried out.

A common experience for people who work with health information articles is to feel as though you are developing whatever condition you have most recently written about. This can be useful from time to time.

I had an irregular-looking mole removed after working on a melanoma article, for instance. However, it can also leave you fearing the worst when all you have done is perhaps eaten too much beetroot.

This neuroticism made waiting for my health check results a slightly nervous affair. Thankfully, I was happy to discover that everything was okay. My fears of gross malnourishment due to a disorganized vegan diet proved to be completely unfounded.

I was on to the next stage of my donation journey. The hospital was ready and prepared to have me in to donate my stem cells. I now needed to prepare my body for the process.

From here on out, there will be quite a bit about injections and needles! If you want to avoid this and skip to the end, you can click on this link.

To improve the chances of collecting a good amount of stem cells, donors take a series of injections in the days running up to the collection date. The injections contain a protein called granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), which helps boost levels of stem cells in the bloodstream.

I had never injected anything before. I am typically quite happy to receive injections — my COVID-19 vaccinations were wonderful — but being the person to push down on the syringe was quite a daunting prospect.

Thankfully a nurse walked me through the first day of injecting. They explained that I would need to inject two separate doses of G-CSF into either my thigh or belly once a day for 4 days, alternating between the two areas so as not to cause them to ache too much.

The process involved pinching flesh from the thigh or belly and injecting into that. When I was able to grab a good chunk, pushing down with the needle was a fairly simple task. At these times I could barely perceive it piercing my skin.

Once I had fully depressed the syringe, there was a click. Releasing my grip at this point would cause the needle to automatically retract, ready for disposal in the sharps bin the nurse had provided. All that was left was for me to do this one more time and that would be my injecting for the day.

I soon grew used to this new addition to my lunchtime routine. stop work. Inject myself twice. Have a sandwich. Do some laundry. Return to work.

The only adverse effects were some slight body aches, particularly in my lower back, and a general feeling of being run down. These are typical for G-CSF injections.

I reported to the hospital and was admitted to the apheresis unit at 2 pm for the “harvesting” of my stem cells. This term made it sound as though the procedure was going to be a brutal process straight out of a dystopian science fiction story. This was not the case!

After being assigned a bed and doing some preliminary checks, a nurse began to set things up.

All the heavy lifting was going to be done by a cell-separating machine. The nurse inserted a needle into a vein in my left arm from which my blood was drawn into the machine. The machine then separated the blood into its separate components: red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma, and platelets.

Once the blood was separated, the parts containing my precious stem cells were taken away, leaving the rest of the blood to return to me. The nurse inserted another needle into a vein in my right arm, and the blood was able to rejoin my bloodstream here from the machine.

After this had been set up, all that was left to do was wait while the machine did its thing with my blood. My left arm had to remain stationary, although I was permitted to squeeze a stress ball to aid circulation.

My right arm was free, however, to play Pokémon on my phone, turn the pages of my book, or struggle with eating the soup and rice pudding that came with my lunch.

From time to time, I would look over at the machine. I could see the tubes carrying blood into this strange device with its turning wheels and rhythmic humming. It really was like something out of a science fiction story, only tempered with the mundanity of waiting in a queue at the post office to send a parcel.

Overall, there was nowhere near the level of discomfort that the name “harvesting” had suggested. The sites on my arms where the needles went in were a bit sore and provided a dull ache throughout the procedure. My left forearm also felt as though I had been sitting on it at certain times, but a few squeezes of the stress ball soon sorted this out.

The other main side effect I experienced was a tingling sensation around my mouth. This is a fairly typical symptom of the blood thinner that the machine uses during the process to prevent the blood from clotting.

When this occurred, the nurse provided me with a calcium tablet, and within a few minutes, the symptom was gone.

I lay on the bed hooked up to the machine for 2 and a half hours in total. During that time, I caught many Pokémon, made great progress reading my book, and just about managed to eat my lunch without making too much of a mess.

The ache in my arms was a constant presence, but overshadowed significantly by how difficult it was to transport soup from a bowl to my mouth.

At 5 pm, the nurse was ready to discharge me. The needles were removed from my arms and a bag full of my stem cells was labeled and packed up, ready to go off to a laboratory.

The nurse advised me to drink plenty of water and to take things easy for the next few days. I felt, a little short of energy or enthusiasm for anything, but otherwise could feel no ill effects of my afternoon in the hospital.

It is typical for people to experience bone aches for a few days after the procedure, along with tiredness. This was the same for me, too.

I was fine to return to work as normal the following day, and the only adjustment I made to my routine was to skip playing soccer for a week.

The doctor who had seen me for my health check had explained that my spleen would have shrunk during the procedure, and avoiding contact sports would allow it time to return to its usual size without harm. This may have been the first time in my life I have actively considered my spleen’s well-being.

The following week, with spleen presumably back to its original size, I was happy to return to all of my usual pastimes!

Whenever I told someone I was going to be donating stem cells, quite a few people seemed impressed. Their reactions suggested that the whole process would be a great ordeal with significant levels of discomfort.

Thankfully, donating the stem cells was an effortless process, and my experience is one that has been shared by many others. Several testimonies are available to read on the Anthony Nolan website, and all echo the sentiment that the process is largely straightforward and not too painful.

Stem cells are a vital part of treatment for several serious conditions while also showing a lot of potential in the development of new therapies for currently untreatable diseases. As a result, it is important for there to be people very willing to donate their stem cells. Many will be able to save lives by joining a donation register.

My hope is that this article makes stem cell donation seem less scary and more accessible. I would certainly recommend that folks consider it if they are able to. And if you are lucky enough to be asked to donate, get some practice eating with one arm beforehand.