Stem Cell Transplant Still 'Only Cure, Only Help'
In 1982, a team including Joseph Verdirame, MD, performed one of the first bone-marrow transplants in Nebraska. It was a 180-day recovery process – patients received transplants from donors, and spent a month in the hospital.
“At the time, it was the only curative treatment for certain types of leukemia. In some cases, it still is today,” said Dr. Verdirame, dyad medical director for CHI Health Oncology Services and retired hematologist/oncologist.
In the early days of the transplant program, a number of patients were in their teens.
“We were dealing not only with patients, but also their parents,” he said. “Some patients may not have grasped the implications of all this, but their parents did. They saw it as a chance – the only cure, the only hope.”
Unfortunately, bone-marrow transplants didn’t always work. “We did have some fatalities, but the overwhelming emotion was hope,” he said. Now, 35 years later, bone marrow is rarely harvested.
“We now use a patient’s own stem cells collected from the blood in an autologous stem-cell transplant,” said Samer Renno, MD, director of the CHI Health autologous stem-cell transplant program.
Most stem-cell transplants treat multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects certain white blood cells called plasma cells. CHI Health also does stem-cell transplants to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“We specialize in autologous stem-cell transplants and have many years of a long track record in this procedure,” said
Dr. Renno, hematologist/oncologist. “We take the patient’s own cells and freeze them, not without risk, but it’s not a very high risk.”
Martha Rasmussen, of Ainsworth, Neb., was diagnosed at age 66 with lymphoma.
“It’s a very rare type of lymphoma, with a very bad prognosis,” Rasmussen said. “My oncology doctor in Norfolk belongs to the group of doctors affiliated with CHI Health Immanuel, so I chose to go there for my stem-cell transplant.”
The process included harvesting Rasmussen’s stem cells, chemotherapy (about four to five days), recovery in the hospital (several weeks) and infusing harvested stem cells back into her blood (a few hours). Dr. Renno said Rasmussen was upbeat and followed instructions “above and beyond” what was asked during her recovery. When she left the hospital, though, Rasmussen was surprised by how weak she’d become.
“I had hoped to hike up mountains within three months, but it took all my energy just to walk down the street and shop for an hour,” she said. “Still, everyone told me I was making a much better recovery than average.”
Ultimately, Rasmussen embraced the hope, and the cure.
“Life is beautiful and I’m very thankful for all the great nurses and doctors at Immanuel and the Norfolk Oncology Center who did so much to help me go on living,” Rasmussen said.