AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tens of thousands of Americans could require a bone marrow transplant this year because of blood cancer. It is a highly effective treatment, but until recently the patients would need to spend up to a month or more in the hospital to recover from the debilitating treatment.
Thanks to new techniques and medications many people can now recover at home, as outpatients.
St. David’s South Austin Medical Center is the first in the Austin area to offer outpatient care after bone marrow transplants, sparing people long hospital stays in places like Dallas or San Antonio.
“It was shocking, any time you hear the word cancer it is shocking,” said Andrea Easter.
Andrea was diagnosed two years ago with multiple myeloma. She underwent multiple treatments of radiation, chemo, and eventually surgery.
Since then she has had a bone marrow transplant at St. David’s South and was able to recover at home.
“We’ve come a long way, when we first started doing them we didn’t know a lot. But now it’s a very routine procedure,” explained Dr. Aravind Ramakrishnan.
The machine works something like a butter churn with cream rising to the top. In the case of a bone marrow transplant, it is the vital stem cells being separated from the blood.
“We put an IV in one arm, an IV in the other arm, blood comes out one, the machine has a little centrifuge, it collects the stem cells we need for the transplant and the blood returns to the other arm,” Dr. Ramakrishnan said.
But it takes weeks for a patient’s blood count to recover and there is constant fatigue. Andrea recalls, “Initially the first few days were fine, then as you go through it you start feeling tired. You’re on a limited diet, they put you on a special diet.”
Dr. Ramakrishnan points out, “Often times patients were in the hospital for a month, sometimes longer depending on complications. Now it is advances in drugs, advances in stem cell collection and advances in our ability to care for them on a daily basis that makes the difference.”
Andrea still had to make daily visits to the doctors, but only for a few hours at a time. She could go home every night to recover.
She smiles, “Since I was in the hospital previously for my surgery it was good to know I’d be able to go home. Even if I knew I had to come back in the morning, to go home, to sleep in my bed, to shower in my shower, no hospital gown to wear, that made a big difference, it helped my spirits.”
Overall, some 20,000 will get bone marrow transplants for blood cancer this year in the U.S. Not all are treated as outpatients, there isn’t always a specialized clinic nearby and it depends on the patient’s condition. According to the Seattle Care Center Alliance they have a success rate of 85% in cases of blood cancer.