Thursday, November 20, 2014

Day +174 SHARE THE LOVE!!!

Ryan in Subaru’s Share the Love Event Commercial
Supporting Make-A-Wish America

Okay, there is just a little bit of excitement in our household right now.  The TV is fired up, the Facebook Posts are starting, the blogs are being published, and the Tweets are going out.  Today is Ryan’s big debut on the small screen!

Late this summer, we were contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation with a very rare opportunity.  Subaru was looking for a “Wish Kid” to be in an upcoming National TV Commercial for their annual Share the Love Event.  Make-A-Wish thought of Ryan and asked if we would be interested.  Of course we would!  How many times in your life do you get to do something like that???

We were especially honored to be able to do something so important to funding the Wishes of Children with Life-Threatening Illnesses.  This is the 7th Year of the Subaru Share the Love Event.  Last year, the campaign generated over $2 Million dollars for Make-A-Wish.  This year, Subaru plans to donate a record $15 Million to various charities, including Make-A-Wish.

In addition to the commercial, Subaru produced a “behind the scenes” video.  We had the opportunity to see it for the first time last night.  I can’t believe how chunky Ryan looked when we filmed! (He had just come off steroids.) For now, we have been asked not to share the behind the scenes video because it is intended to be shown to Subaru employees.  However, I am hoping to eventually get permission to share it here, because it is really cute.

I also had the opportunity to write a guest blog entry about our experience for Make-A-Wish that I will share once it is posted.

Here is a link to what appears to be an extended version of the commercial.  Ryan has scenes at both the beginning and end of the video so be sure to watch the whole thing!:

Thank you Subaru, Make-A-Wish America, Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington Chapter, Carmichael Lynch (Advertising Agency) and Smuggler (Production Company) for such a fun experience!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day +171 Watch for Ryan on TV Starting This Thursday!

Back in September, I posted some vague information indicating that Ryan would be in an upcoming national television commercial. I still can’t officially release specific information (due to contract restrictions), but I will be able to give full details on Thursday when the advertising campaign launches. Stay Tuned!

As you may recall, I last updated that Ryan was having some potential issues with gut GVHD.  He had an endoscopy and something similar to a colonoscopy, but not as extreme (I can’t remember off the top of my head what it was called).  They took tissue samples from four different locations along his GI tract, and I am very happy to report that the biopsies all came back negative for GVHD. Whew!  So, why was he nauseous and not eating much?  Well, let’s just say that the plumbing was quite backed up…  I guess things are just not yet back to full speed with all of the medications he is on.

Halloween was a rare opportunity for Ryan to do kid stuff.  He wanted to be a mummy, which worked perfectly with the mask I made him wear.  We did take him trick-or-treating, but we had him stay away from groups of kids and wait until other kids were not at doors before he could go up and knock.  Then, he had to wash and sanitize his hands as soon as we got home.  I also took rubbing alcohol to the outside of all of his candy wrappers before he could sort through his loot.  He did have fun, but it was a little sad seeing how badly he wanted to join in with the other groups of kids.  At one point, he got excited and started to run toward a group of kids (they were asking him to join), but we had to quietly call him back.  Next year, he should be able to join in as much as he wants.

We were also able to get out of the house for awhile yesterday.  It was really sunny here (although chilly) so we took a drive to a local resort that is currently in the off-season and enjoyed some outdoor time.  We walked the grounds and some docks that run along the shore of Puget Sound.  The pictures of the kids were taken there (Alderbrook Resort – Union, WA).

At his last clinic appointment, Ryan had to start phlebotomy. Remember all of the blood transfusions he had to have before transplant?  They left behind a significant amount of Iron - to the extent that it shows up in his liver on an MRI and, if not addressed, will start to damage his organs.  Ironically, this is treated by taking blood from him! They take enough to temporarily make him anemic; causing his marrow to quickly generate red blood cells to replace what was taken.  Those new red blood cells need iron, so they pull it from other areas of his body (ideally, in his case, the liver!)  He will need to have this done for at least 3 months.  Then, at some point, they will do another MRI to see where things stand.

Other than those few minor issues, Ryan is doing remarkably well.  He looks great and he seems to be feeling pretty good too.  With appointments being spaced out further and things starting to settle down a bit, I have been thinking more about Ryan’s donor.  We cannot have direct contact with him until the end of May (assuming he is willing).  However, I recently remembered that we can attempt to contact him anonymously.   I think it is probably a good time to send him a letter.  I am just stuck on what to say.  A simple “Thank you” seems so inadequate!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Day +140 Battling GVHD & Fighting Germs

Ryan has been seeing his oncologist at MaryBridge in Tacoma each week for the past month, but we return to SCCA for a follow-up next week.  Ryan continues to be followed at SCCA for a few reasons:

1)      He was transplanted under one of their clinical trials, led by Dr. Laurie Burroughs, using Treosulfan (a chemotherapy drug not yet approved by the FDA).
2)      He has some issues with GVHD that they are monitoring.
3)      We are local to the Seattle area so, logistically, it is somewhat convenient.

Shortly after receiving his donor cells, Ryan developed acute skin GVHD.  The doctors also suspected some mild gut GVHD at that time, but his symptoms were never severe enough to warrant an intestinal biopsy to confirm.  He was started on high dose steroids and also received PUVA, a UV light treatment, for his skin.  He was tapered off the steroids fairly quickly because he had a bad psychological reaction, plus the PUVA therapy worked well to put the skin GVHD into remission.

Although Ryan currently remains free from signs of skin GVHD, symptoms of possible gut GVHD have flared up.  His appetite is almost non-existent.  Most of the time, he just doesn’t feel hungry, but other times, he feels nauseous.  Food sometimes looks and sounds good to him, but he will take a few bites and be done.  The smell of food is also bothering him.  He has been averaging about a 1-2 pound per week weight loss.

In addition to the appetite symptoms, the eosinophil count in Ryan’s blood has skyrocketed.  A high eosinophil count generally indicates inflammation and can be a sign of GVHD.  A normal eosinophil count for someone Ryan’s age should be less than 300. Last week, his was over 6,000!

Unfortunately, it is looking like an intestinal biopsy and another round of high dose steroids are probably in his near future.  This is bad for several reasons:

1)      On steroids, Ryan goes away and is replaced by a boy who is very unhappy, unreasonable, and extremely challenging to deal with.  I have a video clip from when he was first put on them in the hospital and it is not pretty!  It’s like a scene from The Exorcist.
2)      Among other things, high dose steroids cause bone loss, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and greatly increase the risk of infection.
3)      Steroids make him itchy and could spark a flare-up with his skin again.

We are over a month into the school year and I think we have finally come to an agreement on a plan with the school district.  They originally offered a limit of 2 hours of tutoring a week under a home hospital plan.  I pursued a 504 plan instead, and we are now up to 6 hours a week of tutoring, materials to be provided by the classroom teacher weekly for us to work with, and the option to Skype with the classroom and possibly Skype with an older 5th grade “reading buddy”.  However, if Ryan is put back on the steroids, I am not sure how this is all going to work out…

I have always been a bit of a germaphobe, but having a child with no immune system, along with the media’s coverage of Ebola and Enterovirus D68 have really kicked my OCD into overdrive!

During Ryan’s last appointment at SCCA, I jokingly told them I felt really paranoid about germs and that I thought maybe I was starting to go overboard.  They looked at me very seriously, and said “Oh, no, we made you that way.  You HAVE to be that careful.”  I realized they were right.  A common cold is an annoyance to most people, but to a transplant patient it can be a potentially fatal event, or on a milder scale, can put a transplant patient in the hospital on a ventilator.

Here are some things that the average person probably doesn’t think about, that my family has to deal with every day:

-          Avoiding people as much as possible; you never know who might be sick, even if they don’t show symptoms yet!  We are basically still living in isolation as much as possible. Except for appointments, Ryan only stays at home or goes to grandma’s house while I am at work. For appointments, Ryan wears a mask except when in the exam room with the door closed.  He is even getting paranoid and told the social worker last week to get away from him (she had a cold and was wearing a mask).
-          Ryan’s sister has to stay at her mom’s house if she has any cold symptoms or has been around anyone that has cold symptoms (this is a struggle because she has asthma and allergies so it is hard to tell when she has a “real” cold).
-          Brad and I limit our own exposure to the public so that we don’t get sick and bring it home to Ryan.  This is another challenge because Brad is self-employed working with the public, and I work in a large building with about 500 other people, several of whom travel internationally on a regular basis and are probably exposed to all sorts of things on airline flights.
-          We have to keep Ryan away from sources of bacteria, fungus and mold: No house plants, all fruits and veggies have to be scrubbed thoroughly (including banana peels if he is going to touch them), Ryan has to wash his hands anytime he pets the cats, the cats cannot sleep with him (we have to keep the door to his room closed 24-hours a day), and the list goes on…

Among other things, we have to wash our hands and/or gel after touching:
Door handles
Elevator buttons
Other people’s desks, conference tables, pens, keyboards, etc.
Point of sale devices (pin pads / styluses)
Grocery carts
Items off store shelves
Gas pumps

I can hear a single cough across an entire crowded store and then that person goes on my radar and I avoid going down any isle where they may be.

Same thing at work…  If I hear you coughing or know you are sick, I will avoid you.  If I can call into meetings from my desk, I will.  If I have to attend in person, you will likely see me sitting in the back of the room or at least keeping some distance from others.  Also, don’t be offended if I decide to put a surgical mask on.  These are just some temporary precautions I have to take.

I avoid getting in crowded elevators.  If someone waiting for the elevator coughs or sneezes, I will not go into the elevator with them.  I will take the stairs or wait for the next elevator.

If I am in the stairwell and I hear someone coming toward me cough or sneeze, I will turn around and go back the other way.

I have even been borderline rude on occasion and asked people directly if they are sick and/or told people to please keep their distance.

I often hold my breath when I walk past people, especially if I know they are sick.

However, we are trying to figure out a way for Ryan to be a kid for a few hours and do some trick or treating on Halloween.  I think the plan is for him to wear a mask under his mummy costume, we will go early to avoid crowds of kids, and we will wipe down the outside of all of his candy wrappers with rubbing alcohol before he can have any of them.

Upcoming TV Commercial:
Ryan and his sister will be in a national TV commercial scheduled to run November 22 through January.  I am hoping to be able to post more details soon. It involves a major auto-maker, a national charity, and ties to Ryan’s transplant.  Another Hint: “Love”

Through this opportunity, both kids received some fun mail - invitations to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).  We will be saving the letters of invitation for their scrapbooks, but we don’t plan to spend the $3,000 per kid to join since we don’t anticipate anymore “acting” gigs in their future.

Upcoming Birthday
Ryan will turn 6 tomorrow!  He doesn’t know it yet, but we made last minute arrangements for one of his best friends from school to come over and hang out with him.  He is going to be so surprised.  He hasn’t seen any of his friends in almost 8 months!

Even with the GVHD struggles and the year-long required changes in lifestyle to isolate Ryan from infection, overall, he is doing very well.  There are many medical professionals that we are just now re-connecting with for the first time post-transplant, and all have commented on how great Ryan looks.  I agree.  I think most people meeting him for the first time wouldn’t have any idea what he has been through in the last year and a half.

Once all of the restrictions are lifted (hopefully by late spring 2015), we plan to make up for lost time.  Ryan is already making a mental list of all of the things he wants to do and the places he wants to go.  Yesterday out of the blue he said “The next time we go to Leavenworth, I can stay in the loft because now I have platelets.” (He was referring to a place we previously stayed overnight.  It had a ladder to a loft that I wouldn’t let him sleep in because I was worried he could fall and hemorrhage.)

Note: The pictures from this post were taken a few weeks ago.  Ryan decided it was time to inherit his older sister’s Razor 360 scooter.  It looks like fun – I think they need to make one for adults!

Current Counts:
WBC: 7.62 (normal)
RBC: 4.14 (normal)
Hgb: 13.2 (normal)
Hct: 37.1 (normal)
Platelets: 248,000 (almost normal! – The GVHD is likely keeping this count a little lower than it is capable of being)
ANC:  1290 (slightly low this week, but it’s normal for this count to fluctuate quite a bit)

Abs eos: 3010 (was 6760 last week – both numbers are very high and a potential indication of GVHD activity)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

DAY +100!!!

I recently heard “Day +100” for a transplant patient described as being similar to reaching base camp on your way up Mount Everest.  We have reached a significant milestone, but still have a very long way to go.  We were reminded of this reality last week when Ryan’s counts dipped a little bit.  In fact, his neutrophil count has been hovering just over 1,000 and the team said that if it drops anymore, they will give him a drug called Neupogen to increase white cell production (also called Filgrastim or growth stimulating factors or G-CFS).

Ryan had Neupogen shortly after he was diagnosed last year with Very Severe Aplastic Anemia.  I would like to avoid this particular drug, because it adds a very slight increase in the chance of developing Leukemia.  It also only seems to work as a temporary solution for most people.  The counts go up while you are on it, but generally drop when you discontinue the drug. Ryan’s hematocrit had also dropped from an all time high of 35 down to 30 and his platelets dipped a bit.

However, after this scare, Thursday’s labs showed that his neutrophil count stayed about the same and his hematocrit had gone back up a bit to 33.  There is a possibility that the weekly antibiotic Ryan is on to prevent lung infections, Bactrim, may be causing his counts to stay a little low.  Bactrim is known to affect bone marrow function, but they still use it because it is more effective than alternatives, such as Pentamadine, in preventing a specific type of lung infection that is very dangerous to transplant patients.  If Ryan’s counts dip again, they may take him off of Bactrim and put him on another drug they have in mind.

Also a little disappointing is that our stay in Seattle is extended at least a week.  This is not due to medical reasons, but has more to do with scheduling with a specific doctor that will be following Ryan post-transplant.  Ryan was transplanted under a Research protocol led by Dr. Burroughs, and she would like to see him in clinic this coming week and be the one to hold his Data Review Conference and discharge him. As much as we would like to be home, I do look forward to speaking with Dr. Burroughs again and getting her take on how Ryan is doing and his overall prognosis.

We haven’t let some slightly lower counts and a delay in going home get in the way of our excitement in celebrating this huge milestone today!  I asked Ryan how he wanted to celebrate and he had one simple request. Chocolate cake!  We celebrated at Grandma Terry’s house (a little beyond how far we are officially supposed to travel, but hey, it’s day +100!!!).  Brad and I also surprised Ryan with a new kick scooter.  We figured he deserved a reward for everything he has gone through.  We also have an ulterior motive –it counts as physical therapy!

As we reflect on the past 100 days, and the past 14 months since Ryan’s diagnosis, we are incredibly grateful for all of the support we have received.  There truly is no way we could have come this far so successfully without the numerous individuals that have so kindly helped us along the way.

In the early days of Ryan’s diagnosis, I really learned what a kind-hearted and generous group of people I work with.  My co-workers near and far immediately started offering to help.  They sent cards and notes with supporting words, collected gifts for Ryan and money to help with medical bills. We even had dinners prepared for two months by co-workers all throughout my office and delivered to our front door.

My boss, my team, and those I work closely on projects with have been so patient and flexible when I have needed to work crazy schedules to fit doctor’s appointments and hospital admissions in.  I have been so overwhelmed and thankful for this support.  I know of other families affected by this illness that have lost their jobs, and I am so grateful that I haven’t had to face that type of stress and financial burden on top of an already devastating situation.

We are also grateful to friends and family that have helped in so many different ways.  The grandmas have been especially helpful in offering to care for Ryan so that I can go back to work.  I am also thankful for those who visited us in the hospital, those who stayed a bit with Ryan so that I could have a break, and those that invited me out for a change of scenery.

I am grateful to the other Aplastic Anemia families that have connected with us and have offered so much support.  Although we are small in numbers due to the rareness of this disease, I am continually amazed out how strong and full of grace these families are.  These are families going through their own struggles, recoveries, and, heartbreakingly, some have lost their own children.  They have taken the time to send me personal messages, comment on Ryan’s page, or “like” his updates.  It has been wonderful to have this type of support.  I hope to be able to meet some of these families in the future as they have become near and dear to my heart.

Even the little things that let us know we are not going through this alone have been a really big help.  I read and appreciate every comment on Ryan’s Facebook page, and I see every “like” that comes through and am thankful you cared enough to take a few seconds out of your day to check in on us. If you are taking the time to read this right now, we are thankful for you!

Most of all, I give thanks to God.  I normally do not talk much about religion.  In fact, I haven’t even been to church in almost 10 years.  I also have a great amount of respect for different religions and even those who do not believe in God or religion. I can completely understand why there are so many different views on this topic, so I tend to keep my posts fairly neutral in this regard. However, I have witnessed too many miracles recently, both in Ryan and other children fighting battles, to question where they are coming from.  I am going to go with my gut on this one and give thanks where I think it is deserved.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Day +92 IVIG & Appetite Changes

Ryan ended up requiring IVIG yesterday (see previous post for an explanation of what IVIG is). I anticipated that it would take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, but it was more like 6 hours from the time we got to the infusion suite.  However, everything went fine and he didn’t have any reactions (some kids get the chills and shakes – or other reactions.)

This coming week is Ryan’s last week on steroids. As he tapers off, I have noticed that the last few days he doesn’t have an appetite in the morning and it borderlines on nausea.  I have to persuade him to eat something small so that his morning medications do not upset his stomach.  Even then, he only wants to eat a few bites.  Then, he makes up for it at lunch and dinner (he had two servings of spaghetti for lunch today and then was a little sad that we were out and he couldn’t have more).  I am concerned that the appetite change could be a sign of gut GVHD flaring up now that he is coming off the steroids.  I am really hoping that is not the case.

We have an exciting event coming up on Tuesday… Ryan is scheduled to have his central line removed!  It will be so nice for him to be free of tubes dangling from his chest. He will be able to take a normal bath or shower again without worrying about his lines and dressing getting wet.  It will also be the first time in 14 months that he will not have a medical device surgically implanted in his body.

The picture included in this post is one of my favorite post-transplant images of Ryan celebrating his freedom from the hospital. Brad captured it on the shore of Puget Sound about a week after Ryan was released as an inpatient. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Day +88 Anxious to Go Home & Sad for one of our fellow Aplastic Anemia families

We are so ready to go home…  Ryan and I are both really homesick.  Ryan has been missing his kitty, Dexter (and of course his dad and sister).  Yes, we named our cat after the TV serial killer, but it seemed fitting being that our cat is also a “red head” (flame point Siamese).

The week before last, we practically begged Ryan’s team to give us a pass to drive home for just a couple of hours. I got a little bit of a speech about how it is against their policy, and that some doctors will not even consider it, but they didn’t give me too hard of a time. They decided to let us go because Ryan has been meeting his goal for fluid intake and no longer needs to be on IV hydration.  However, the doctor said, “Well, if you’re going to drive all that way, you might as well stay the night.”  I wasn’t going to argue with that!

We had to set up an emergency plan, and I had to agree that if Ryan even had a hint of a fever or anything else concerning, I would rush him right back to Seattle (or call 911).  Neither of us had slept in our own beds since May 21st.  Select Comfort donated Sleep Number beds to the Ronald McDonald House Apartments (which is really nice of them), but after all of this time, I still can’t seem to find my “Sleep Number.”  It was heaven to sleep in my own bed!

Now that we have had a taste of home, these last few weeks in Seattle seem to be dragging along in slow motion.  Ryan’s “Day 80 Work-up” started last week and continues into this week.  This is a repeat of all the tests and exams that were done leading up to transplant, with some new tests added.  The purpose of the work-up is to review the status of his bone marrow, determine if he has damage to his body from the transplant, and to decide if he is on track to be discharged at Day +100.  So far, he is on track!

Ryan is so sheltered right now and is really missing the social interaction he normally would have at school with his friends.  The last few weeks during our clinic visits, I can see that he is just starving for interaction with people.  “Stranger Danger” has gone out the window and he has become “Chatty Cathy” with anyone who will give him the time of day.  He asks people where they are from, why they are there, whether they are a transplant patient, whether they have a Hickman line like his, and so on.

We don’t see many other kids at SCCA and the adult patients seem to get some comic relief from his 5-year old boy antics.  He has a few “regulars” that he visits with in the waiting rooms.  In fact, last week, he was asking one of his lady friends if she had a Hickman line like his.  Before she could answer, he quickly pulled her shirt collar out and took it upon himself to look down her shirt. As I was cringing and trying to explain to him that it wasn’t appropriate, the woman just laughed and said “oh, that’s okay.”  Most transplant patients have had their privacy violated so much that I think it probably really didn’t bother her. But still…

He has also somehow worked a deal with the woman in the cafeteria. By the time I pay for my coffee and turn around to usher him along, a full cup of whipped cream with a spoon has somehow magically appeared in his hands.

All of Ryan’s appointments lately seem to be taking twice as long because he has questions about EVERYTHING.  He wants to know what every button on each machine does and how everything works.  At least twice a week someone comments “Oh, you have a little engineer here.”

We have some of the test results from the Day 80 Work-up back and, so far, they are very encouraging.  Here is a summary:

Ryan’s platelet count has been over 200,000 for about 3 weeks now. His red and white counts are fluctuating, but in a decent range.

His DEXA bone density scan was normal for his age (good news, because high dose steroids can do some damage.)

He had a second peripheral blood chimerism test to determine what percentage of his cells are donor cells versus his own cells.  The test confirmed that all three cell lines are 100% donor (no trace of his old “bad” cells).

In addition, he had a bone marrow biopsy and aspirate last week.  A chimerism done by biopsy is more accurate than using peripheral blood.  The biopsy was also 100% donor.

The cellularity of his marrow from the biopsy was reported as 30%-40% with no dysplaysia (cells of abnormal shape or size).  The cellularity percentage concerned me at first, because I was expecting around 70-80%.  However, the team stated that a cellularity in this range is acceptable for only being 80 days post transplant.  Many patients at this stage are only around 10-20%.

Ryan continues to test negative for CMV, Epstein Bar (EBV), and Adenovirus. These are the three main viruses that lay dormant in a majority of the population and can re-activate in a transplant patient, causing significant problems.

A skin biopsy was done to test for GVHD.  The report stated that his skin sample was relatively normal with “a few apoptotic cells”.  Translation = there is only a trace of GVHD currently; nothing major.

His kidneys are stable and his liver is doing well (common problem areas for transplant patients).

Ryan will likely need an IVIG (Intravenous Immunoglobulin) transfusion within the next week because his IGG (Immunoglobulin G) level is low. IVIG contains antibodies collected from the plasma of healthy blood donors and will replace the antibodies that his body is not currently making. This is extremely common in transplant patients who are immune suppressed, and there is a chance that he will need some repeat transfusions until his immune system gets stronger.  It is interesting to note that a single dose of IVIG contains pooled immunoglobulin from the plasma of 1,000 to 15,000 donors. Thank you once again blood product donors!!!

I was very sadly reminded this afternoon of how lucky we are to have Ryan regaining his health. I learned that another young Aplastic Anemia fighter, Sydney Elizabeth, passed away today (  My thoughts are with her family tonight as they cope with her passing.

Day +70 Full of Energy!

While driving in the car a few days ago, Ryan announced from the back seat "Mom, I feel like I am back to my old self. I feel really good." Then, this morning I asked "How are you feeling this morning?" His response: "PLAYFUL!"

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Day +68 Doing Well

It’s amazing to think that Ryan’s last transfusion of blood products was over two months ago.  This time last year, there were days where he needed multiple transfusions in a single day. Not only are his counts holding steady, they have gone up in the last couple of weeks!  His current counts are:

Platelets: 197,000 (Getting close to “normal”)
Hematocrit: 35 (Normal)
Neutrophil Count: 2830 (Normal)

The GVHD of his skin is still an issue at times, but it is much improved.  The PUVA therapy really seems to be helping.  As a result of the improvement, we have been able to continue weaning his steroid dosage down significantly.  If the current trend continues, he will be off steroids in about a month.  This is good for several reasons.  Steroids affect personality, appetite, add additional suppression to his immune system and cause bone loss.  Ryan’s last chest x-ray shows that he does have some bone de-calcification due to the steroids.  However, it is minor enough that it can be reversed by discontinuing the steroids and getting enough calcium and vitamin D.

Last night I had the news on and there was a story about a Florida clinic owner and his colleagues being arrested in a doping scandal for supplying steroids to both professional baseball players and high school athletes.  The reporter made a comment about the players being in trouble for taking steroids.  Ryan stopped in his tracks, looked a little alarmed, and then asked “Mom, am I in trouble?”  It was really funny, and it did spark our first conversation about how you should only take drugs prescribed by your doctor (and that are needed for health conditions), not drugs that are given to you by other people or taken for reasons other than being sick.

At Day +80 SCCA starts a pre-discharge work-up.  We are excited to be starting the work-up week after next. Ryan will basically go through all of the same tests and appointments that he did right before transplant, and then some.  This will include a bone marrow biopsy and chimerism test to look in detail at his marrow for any abnormalities, and to determine if he is still 100% donor cells.  They will also check his IGG level (the level of certain antibodies in the blood, made by the immune system to fight antigens such as bacteria, viruses, and toxins). He will have a skin biopsy to check the status of his GVHD, chest imaging (CT and/or X-ray), bone density scan, an oral medicine exam, and potentially a visit to the kidney doctor.

Then, as we approach Day +100, we will make a decision regarding whether his central line should be removed.  That is normally a big event for kids because it means that they can take a normal bath or shower in more than a couple inches of water, and without having to have their chest covered in plastic.  Some transplant patients are also given permission to swim at that point (although probably only if they have a pool at home where they can control the cleanliness and who enters the water.)  I think Ryan will be really happy if he gets a few late summer days in September to splash around in his kiddie pool once we get home.

In the meantime, we are spending most of our time avoiding the public, as much as possible, and trying to follow all of the strict post-transplant rules.  There are rules such as: he cannot sit on the grass, dig in the dirt, go hiking in dense foliage, be near fresh flowers or live plants, or eat nuts that are roasted in the shell (among other food restrictions). It is difficult at times to remember all of the rules and I feel like I am constantly telling him he can’t do something or can’t have something.

However, in some aspects, SCCA is not as strict as some other transplant centers.  For example, Ryan can have fresh fruits and vegetables at home, as long as I select them and wash them well.  He is also not required to wear a mask in public or outdoors (although at times I make him wear one anyway, and I will be especially strict about it as we enter the cold/flu season this winter).  Instead of a mask, SCCA just asks that we avoid going to places where he may have close contact with people.  Restaurants are okay, but there are dietary restrictions and we have to go at non-peak times when there will not be very many people. We play it a little safer and I am very selective about where I will take him, period. I try to limit his exposure to the public as much as possible, while still letting him have some time as a kid that feels mostly normal to him.

Last weekend was Seattle Seafair and the Navy Blue Angels were in town.  Ryan got to meet a couple of them at SCCA.  That made him want to go watch them fly.  Their show is always my favorite part of Seafair, so we set out to find a place where we could watch them, but not be too close to other people. We ended up driving around Seattle and catching glimpses of them overhead.  Then, we went to the Spaghetti Factory, which was Ryan’s first time dining in a restaurant post-transplant. Ryan really enjoyed dining there.  We had a window seat right next to the train tracks, so he was able to watch them go by.  Plus the Blue Angels kept buzzing by.

I was really paranoid about germs and kept having to tell him not to touch the wall, the window blinds, etc.  Then, he ordered a “Cotton Candy LimeAid”.  I snapped a few pictures because it cleverly came with a big puff of cotton candy on the straw.  Ryan loved it.  Then, after he had already had a few sips, I noticed there were wedges of fresh lime mixed in with the ice! I had to send it back and ask that they make it without any fresh fruit.  That incident was followed by me having to take pistachio’s away from him today because it dawned on me that he can’t have nuts that are roasted in the shells.  So many rules - but all to try and keep him safe and healthy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day +53 A Day in the Life of a Transplant Patient & Small Victories

Ryan’s platelet count has rebounded a little bit. They jumped up from 78K to 119K in just four days.  I felt so relieved when I found out.  I know that platelets will fluctuate and that he is doing fairly well, but anytime I see his platelets go down, I panic.  I just can’t help it.  I watched his counts go down over and over for almost a year and it was always bad news.  I am now conditioned to be disappointed to see numbers go down and it will take me awhile to get over that.

I went into yesterday’s appointment with my usual list of questions and concerns.  After not seeing an increase in platelets for a few weeks, I wanted to know if Ryan had been tested yet for platelet antibodies and, if not, I was going to request it.  If someone has platelet antibodies, it means that their immune system is mistakenly creating antibodies that attack and kill platelets.  So, my question “Has Ryan been tested for platelet antibodies?” was met with “Well his platelets are almost 120K, that’s pretty good.”  The team acknowledged once again that they know I am worried, but they want me to know that they are not worried.

Another piece of good news is that Ryan hasn’t needed any anti-itch meds in over 24 hours. He still has a slightly visible GVHD rash and, since we lowered his steroid dose again Sunday, his cheeks are a little pinker. However, so far he hasn’t had a major GVHD flare up. The PUVA therapy seems to be helping some. Being off the anti-itch meds (which also act as sedatives) has certainly increased his energy level and overall happiness. He has been a lot more loving the last couple days and has been downright silly at times.

On a non-medical note, Ryan’s latest hobby is mopping.  Yep, you read that right. He has been asking every day this week if he can mop the floor.  I figure he can’t do much damage with a Swiffer, so why not? It also gives him some additional exercise so it’s a win-win.  I am secretly hoping he will want to continue mopping everyday when we return home.

In case you are wondering what Ryan’s days are like, below is a sample of a typical clinic day (This was yesterday, Monday 7/21/2014):

I wake up and jump in the shower

Wake up Ryan and disconnect the IV used for overnight fluids

7:15 AM
Leave for Clinic

7:45 AM
Arrive at SCCA Clinic

8:00 AM
Blood Draw at Lab

8:30 AM
Take morning medications & grab quick breakfast in the SCCA cafeteria

8:45 AM
Hickman Line Dressing Change (Ryan’s most dreaded appointment every week – it hurts…)

9:30 AM
Appointment with Nutritionist:
Weight/height recorded. Nutritionist advises that Ryan needs to continue working on getting more fluids, eating more potassium rich foods and adding calcium as much as possible.  We hear for the first time that Ryan’s last chest x-ray showed some bone de-calcification, therefore, calcium and vitamin D are really important right now.

Take Psoralen in preparation for 11:15 PUVA treatment (must be taken precisely 1.5 hours before treatment to be effective)

Clinic Appointment with Transplant Team
Vitals are taken and we discuss medications, fluids, skin symptoms, lab results, ekg results, hickman line function, appetite, nausea, and so on. The de-calcification shown on the last chest x-ray is brought up again. The team re-assures us that it is reversible, but we need to continue to address it.  Note: Ryan already takes two Viactive calcium chews a day, along with Vitamin D.  The bone issue is a common side effect of transplant and the high-dose steroids – all the more reason to keep tapering him off the steroids, if possible.

Mid-day Medications

PUVA Therapy (a.k.a. “The Tanning Bed”)

12:00 PM
Lunch back at the RMH apartment. Ryan sneaks in some SpongeBob on TV while I work on Laundry.

2:00 PM
Physical Therapy at Seattle Children’s

3:30 PM
Return to the SCCA clinic to pick up new prescriptions and IV fluid bags to be used until the next clinic appointment on Thursday.

4:30 PM
Return to RMH apartment


7:30 PM
Start prepping IV pump (gather supplies, check pump battery, program pump, attach tubing to bag and prime)

7:45 PM
Clean and flush Ryan’s Hickman line and hook up IV.

8:00 PM
Evening Medications

8:30-9:00 PM
Ryan goes to bed (by this time, Ryan is normally asking if he can go to sleep…)

Around this time, I generally go to bed, but I am so busy processing everything that I have a hard time going to sleep.  About the time I finally drift off, I hear Ryan wake up and yell from the other bedroom “Mom! I have to go pee!”  My job is to get up with him and hold the backpack that contains his bag of fluids and IV pump so that he can do his business…

Note: This week’s schedule is an improvement over last week when Ryan needed anti-itch medication around the clock, including at 11:00 PM, 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Day +50 Half Way to the First Major Milestone

There is nothing magical about Day +100 other than, statistically, transplant patients have better survival rates if they make it to day 100.  It is also the time when, if Ryan is doing well, he can get his Hickman Line removed and, most importantly, we can go home. It feels good to be half way there.

Overall, Ryan is doing well for where he is in the process. Below are updates on a few random topics:

Platelets dropped a few weeks ago from a high of 155K, but have leveled out around 78K. The team is not concerned about it.  They often see platelets decrease when a patient has GVHD. Ryan is also on some medications that can artificially lower counts.  Once he is further along and off some of the medications, his counts should start increasing again.

ANC has been in the normal range (around 4,500 most days).

Hematocrit has been steady in the 33-35 range.  The team told me at his last appointment that they had expected his hematocrit to drop because they have been taking so much blood for lab tests and research, that no person would be able to produce enough new blood to keep up.  Again, this is temporary and it is not hurting anything.  I have agreed to the additional research blood draws because Ryan had a very rare diagnosis and I think it is important to allow experts in the field the opportunity to learn from him.  Maybe they will find something in their research that will help another child in the future.  It is the least we can do to pay Ryan’s gift forward.

Ryan is still fighting some skin GVHD. He has been on high dose steroids now for about 35 days.  At the highest doses, he had quite a few side effects, so the team slowly began tapering him off of them.  However, once the dosage was lowered to a certain point, his skin rash and itching flared back up.  I was sure the team would bump the steroid dosage back up.  However, to my relief, they offered to try an alternate therapy called “PUVA” (psoralen + UVA treatment).

PUVA is a therapy done three times a week for several weeks.  It involves taking psoralen, a drug that makes the T cells that are attacking the skin sensitive to UVA light, an hour and a half before treatment and then laying in a tanning bed with special bulbs for a few minutes. The UVA light then “zaps” and knocks down the offending T cells.

It was really difficult to convince Ryan to get into the tanning bed.  I am sure it looks really scary to a 5-year old.  Plus, he knew it would get warm and his skin was already itchy and bothering him, so he was afraid the hot bed would make it worse. It took some real convincing, and thankfully the nurse that administers the treatment is really patient and good with kids, but Ryan finally let me lift him in and he stayed still the entire time.  He had his second treatment Wednesday and now he says it’s fun and he likes it.  I am also seeing some slight improvement in his skin already.

A Chimera was a creature in Greek mythology usually represented as a composite of a lion, goat, and serpent.  Contemporary use of the term “Chimerism” in bone marrow/stem cell transplant derives from this idea of a “mixed” entity, referring to someone who has received a transplant of genetically different tissue.

At Day +28, a chimerism test is performed to analyze the bone marrow recipient’s DNA to determine what percentage is the donor’s DNA and how much of the recipient’s DNA remains, if any.  It’s not too uncommon at this stage for transplant patients to be 95-98% donor and still have some of their own DNA.  In fact, some people never achieve full chimerism, which can create a risk for future graft failure if the original cells start to multiply and take over again.

I realized the other day that I hadn’t received Ryan’s results yet, so I asked and was thrilled to hear “oh, he is 100% donor.”  Woo hoo! It’s one less thing to worry about right now.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Day +38 Decreasing Platelet Count & GVHD Flare

Last week, Ryan was admitted to the hospital because of breathing problems and a low oxygen saturation. They observed him for 24 hours. The breathing and oxygen saturation didn't change much but the CT scan of his lungs was clear, and they couldn't think of anything else to work him up for, so they released him. We are now back at the RMH apartment.

I am feeling a bit discouraged because Ryan's platelet count has started dropping. I know it is normal for it to fluctuate, but it was up to 155K a few weeks ago, then it hovered between 135K-145K for about two weeks. Then, last Thursday it had dropped to 105k and today it was 79K.

So far, the team says they are not concerned about Ryan’s counts.  However, when I was on the phone with the SCCA nurse last Thursday and I mentioned the count dropped to 105K she said "Yeah, we noticed that too" in a voice that had a hint of concern in it.

I haven’t had a chance to discuss today’s drop to 75K with the team yet, but if it keeps decreasing at this rate, he will need a transfusion in a little over a week. I thought we were done with transfusions!  I am really freaking out a bit and am worried that he might be having graft failure. It makes me feel sick to think about that possibility.

Also, his skin GVHD flared back up this morning, so we have stopped tapering the steroids and are keeping him at the same level for now.

Ryan has really been missing home.  His dad and sister stayed with us this weekend.  It was a surprise to him and it really lifted his spirits.  However, today he was talking about how much he misses his cat, Dexter.  He tried to convince me that we should “stop by the house” (as if it were close).  I had to remind him that we are not allowed to leave the city until summer is over, at the earliest.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Day +22 Exciting Day! Ryan got to breathe fresh air for the first time in a month.

Ryan's platelet count was 6 digits for the first time today  (114,000) and his ANC has climbed into the normal range for his age (2684).

The transplant team decided to slowly start weaning him off steroids. Also, there was talk about a possible discharge mid-next week. And... We unexpectedly received a 4-hour pass out of the hospital today!!!

The funny part is that we didn't know what to do at first. We have to avoid the general public, but we don't get access to our apartment until Monday. We ended up going with Grandma Terry and Grandma N to a nearby park. We had to take several precautions - Ryan had to be covered in sunscreen head to toe, he had to wear a hat, and he also had to wear a mask as he was wheeled through the hospital to avoid germs from anyone sick we might pass in the hallways. We took Purell, anti-bacterial hand wipes, and Clorox wipes. Most importantly, we had to make sure there was significant distance between Ryan and anyone else at the park (especially kids). It actually worked out.

My favorite part of the day was seeing Ryan get excited at the park and start running for a few seconds here and there. It is hard to believe that only five days ago he couldn't even stand up for more than a few seconds!

I am continually amazed at the miracles I keep witnessing. Every morning, the first thing I do is ask for a copy of Ryan's labs. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who can't wait to open gifts. Then, I stare in amazement at the numbers I am seeing.

For a year now, the numbers on Ryan's labs always went down. It got to the point where I was really just interested in seeing his numbers so that I would know what type of blood product(s) to expect him to get that day, how long we would be at the clinic getting transfusions, and how careful we had to be that week to avoid hemorrhage and infection.

Ryan has had over 50 blood/platelet transfusions, each taking several hours. Today, it finally sank in that he may never need another one!