Health It's Just A Cheek Swab

Part 8: The Big Day Is Finally Here. Is That Really It?

Read Part 7 Here

January 16, 2014

John called at 7:05 to see if I was in the car and I told him no. He sounded mildly concerned and said he’d call the company. At 7:15 he called again. Nope. Still no driver. I was in full on panic mode, imagining that this somehow would negatively impact Cousin Bob. Finally, at 7:40, the driver arrived and sped us to ANOVA. I forgot to be annoyed or stressed as he entertained us with stories of his life as a pilot for the defunct Eastern Airlines and his escapades flying helicopters for various missions in Africa.

I got to the site at 8, received my last Neupogen injection and was hooked up to the apheresis machine by 8:15. There were two nurses whose names have disappeared from my brain, who were dedicated to me for the entire day.  I was set up in a hospital bed, with a bunch of heated blankets. In my left arm was a needle that drew the blood out of my arm and up through a tube to the apheresis machine. I had to keep my left arm still, which was really the only uncomfortable part of the whole day. In my right arm was another needle, to return the blood to my body (minus the stem cells which were separated out by the machine). John was so apologetic at the rush and and so kind that I felt bad for him. He went out and got me coffee and hard boiled eggs since I had not had any breakfast. The nurses set up a video for Rosie and me and we were going to watch a movie to pass the time, but I ended up talking to John about his job and his travels and his new wife. He was adorable and entertaining. He also brought me a copy of my physical reports and an expense report to fill out to be reimbursed by Gift of Life (which I still haven’t completed…oops). After taking to him for a while, I pretty much decided that I was going to move to Florida and get a job with Gift of Life because it sounded so great.

About 45 min into the donation, I felt a tingling in my lips and teeth. I ignored it. The tingling got stronger and spread up my face.  I continued to ignore it until it became so distracting that I wasn’t able to carry on a conversation.  I mentioned it to one of my nurses, who asked me how long it had been going on, and told me that it was a sign of not having enough calcium.  I had taken the Tums as instructed, to give me extra calcium for donation day, but apparently it was not enough and I needed more.  She gave me more Tums, and several gigantic calcium pills. It got better, but wasn’t gone, so I took more.

About 30 min after the tingling stopped, I started sneezing and I couldn’t stop.  If it had been anyone else sneezing like that, I would have been watching and laughing, but since I was hooked up to tubes and not able to move my left arm, it was less amusing and more annoying.  The sneezing continued and my tongue started to itch. My nurse came over again and asked about my symptoms (tongue itching like crazy, spreading down my throat) and I could not stop sneezing.  This time I was having an allergic reaction to the anticoagulant that was put into my return IV.  There was no way to know if that would happen, since I’d never had an anticoagulant before.  She gave me Benedryl into the line, and as John put it, one minute I was having a conversation and the next second, in the middle of a word, I was out.  Sound asleep.  Benedryl does that to me every time.

When I woke up, several hours had passed.  I thought I would be finished, as it was past 12pm, but it seemed my earlier calcium issue had slowed things down, plus the medical team for Cousin Bob had requested an especially large amount of cells from me.  John estimated I still had at least 2 hours left.  I suddenly became very anxious that I wasn’t going to produce enough after it was explained that they had asked for an unusually large amount (and if you know me, you know there is nothing unusually large about me except maybe my mouth), and I had a moment of panic that after all of this, Cousin Bob wouldn’t receive enough cells.  The nurses and John calmed me down, saying that it was all going fine, and I would have enough to give.

To distract me, John presented me with a blanket made of sweatshirt material, signed by all of the staff at the Gift of Life office in Boca, who helped make my donation a reality.  Gail was on there, and Ana, and Lindsey and John, along with many other signatures and lovely messages from people I hadn’t spoken to directly, but who somehow had been involved in matching me with Cousin Bob and getting me to Virginia that day.  Maybe I was tired from the early start to the day, or maybe it was that darned anticoagulant again, but I choked up and got teary.  It was so thoughtful and wonderful and is one of my most favorite possessions.

At a little after 2pm, my nurses told me I was finished.  We sent Rosie to the waiting room because she is a bit squeamish.  Between the two of them, I was unhooked in about 45 seconds.  And that was it.  Suddenly I was off the machine, my arms had hot pink gauze tape, I was woozily standing and going to the bathroom, and that was it.   My journey was complete.  I had done what I came to do.  I saw my cells.  I held the bag.  It looked like a bag of tomato soup.  I spoke to the cells and said, “Listen.  You have to do what we came here to do.  You have to get to work, and become a nice strong immune system and heal Cousin Bob.  Ok?  If you don’t, I will be very disappointed.”

In the haze of my dozing and then being unhooked, I heard one of the nurses mention that the courier was here.  I already knew from John that a courier was arriving to pick up the cells and fly directly to the recipient’s hospital with them.  I also knew that Cousin Bob was going to receive them on January 17, the very next day.  Cousin Bob’s day 0, in transplant terms.  After making sure I could walk and that I was not dizzy or having any further issues with the anticoagulant, my two amazing nurses bid me goodbye, and wished me luck.  I had my coat, my bag of entertainment (which stayed unopened the entire day), and my blanket.   John walked me out through the waiting room,  where I spotted a petite Asian woman.  I knew she was the courier.  I looked at her, and I said, “Are you the courier?”  She nodded, looking confused.  I said, “Please.  Be careful.”  And she said, “Yes.  I will.”

I walked out with Rosie on one side, and John on the other.  My part was done.

Please work please work please work please work please work please work please work please…

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About the author

Alyssa Gilbert

Alyssa lives in the Five Towns with her husband, four kids, 2 dogs and a cat. She loves all things zen and yoga and has just finished school to become a PT.

Alyssa encourages everyone to get their cheeks swabbed and potentially save another's life. For more info, please visit

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