The Realities of a Stem Cell Transplant: One Man's Experience

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Traver Hutchins’ stem cell transplant experience wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Well…other than the first couple of days in the hospital when he would sneak out to New York’s Central Park to bask in the sun.

“Nobody told me that I wouldn’t feel anything basically for four days, so it surprised me,” Traver told HealthCentral in a phone interview, three months after undergoing a stem cell transplant to treat his multiple myeloma. “In the first four days, your numbers are dropping in terms of your immunities and stuff. It’s a relative safety zone…so you want to get out of your room as much as you can.”

So on the first day of his treatment, he asked his doctors whether he was still allowed to go down to the hospital lobby. They gave the OK, so he headed downstairs. Once in the lobby, he thought to himself, “Well, if they’re going to let me go here, I may [as well] go outside.”

“So across the street I went to Central Park and hung out there for a couple of hours,” Traver said.

Hospital mask on, Traver sat by a park fountain and absorbed the beautiful summery day. After a while, he strolled back indoors. Nobody seemed to have noticed what he had done.

So the next day, he did it again. And the next day. And the next.

“I did this for four days in a row,” he said. “I’m getting tan, [putting] some music on, and everybody’s thinking I’m in this really tough stem cell transplant, and I’m like — this is cake!”

But on the fourth day, he knew his time was up: He no longer had the energy for his sunny outings. He made his way back to his hospital room, and that was that, he said.

“If you’re there for 16 days, 25 percent of it’s not going to be any different — you're not going to feel any different generally than you would on a normal day,” Traver said. “So that’s kind of unusual. I didn’t know that [beforehand].”

Traver has been living with cancer since his diagnosis in 2008. After a multitude of different treatments over the years, some more successful than others, he found himself faced with yet another difficult decision about his next course of action: a stem cell transplant or drug therapy. Ultimately, he decided to go for the transplant.

A stem cell transplant is a procedure that can be used to treat certain diseases and cancers — in Traver’s case, multiple myeloma, the third most common blood cancer in the U.S. There are different kinds of stem cell transplants, but the version Traver had is called an autologous transplant, which meant that his own stem cells were used, rather than a donor’s. The first step of the transplant involves collecting the stem cells from the body. Then, high doses of chemotherapy are given. Finally, the stem cells are put back into the body.

For Traver, the stem transplant felt like a new beginning — a fresh start.

“Mentally, it really did feel like a rebirth,” he said. “You realize that your body has been totally cleansed of every good and bad dividing cell, and you’re really brought down to a base level, and now you’ve injected your stem cells into your system and their repopulating, and it really does give you a sense of this rebirth.”

This powerful feeling was key in helping Traver stay optimistic during the process.

“It emboldens you while you’re going through a rather difficult [experience],” he said.

Traver was well-prepared for most of the experience, in part because he had spoken to others who had already gone through it. Other simple tips helped him get through the more taxing part of his hospital stay, he said.

“I got out of [the hospital] in 15 days, and typical time is about three weeks,” Traver said. “So I think all of these things were factors for me getting out of there faster.”

  • Bring on the ice: “Chewing on ice cubes during the first day or two will really reduce your mouth issues because chemo doesn’t go where it’s cold,” Traver said. If he hadn’t done this, he said, he probably would have had difficulty eating and swallowing.
  • Access to non-hospital food: Traver’s wife and friends took it upon themselves to ensure he didn’t have to rely on notoriously mediocre hospital food during his stem cell transplant. “[They] were really able to bring great food and just figure out what nutrients I was going to be needing after being depleted,” he said.

  • Stock up on entertainment: Sitting in the hospital after having a stem cell transplant can be “tremendously boring,” Traver said. It’s important to come prepared with movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment (although books may not be the best choice during this time, Traver said, because reading takes up more energy).

  • Find a community: One of the things that helped Traver through his transplant was having spoken to others who had been through the same experience. One conversation Traver had with a man who had gone through it was particularly helpful. “And because he did it, I knew I could do it, and I think that made a big difference,” Traver said.

  • Be active: Even though the experience will make you feel like staying in bed all day, Traver said, getting up and moving around as much as possible can speed up the recovery process.

  • Have a positive attitude and see the bigger picture: For Traver, staying positive during the experience was vital, but looking inward to assess what he was learning from it was also important, he said. “Hopefully it will become a really positive turning point where you realize new things and new perceptions of what’s important,” he said. “I really believe that your attitude has a lot to do with your outcome, so I always encourage people to try to the best they can, to be around positive influences and people who will help you be better faster.”

Once Traver left the hospital, his recovery at home was a whole new challenge he had to face.

“It also feels kind of isolating, because you’re home, but you’re really not supposed to have any contact with anyone other than your close ones,” he said.

Yet, ironically, this is also a time when friends and family may be reaching out in support, wanting to connect in person. Learning when to say no for the sake of his health was part of the struggle.

“I think you really have to manage that — how much can you do, how much energy can you put out,” he said.

While the experience is sure to be different for everyone depending on their age, type of disease, and other factors, coming prepared with knowledge about the procedure and small ways to cope with the treatment made the experience seem a bit less rigorous than Traver was expecting.

Hear Traver’s update 100 days after his first stem cell transplant therapy for multiple myeloma: