Interview: From stem cell donor to live saver – ASTech employee Felix tells his story

Gaimersheim – As part of a stem cell donor drive organized by ASTech, together with the Stem Cell Donation Foundation in Bavaria (AKB), 65 ASTech employees participated in a blood typing campaign in February 2019. Three months later, one of the participants, Felix, received a phone call notifying him that his “genetic twin” was ill. Felix was now under consideration as a donor. After extensive examinations and tests, Felix discovered that he would have the chance to save someone’s life on August 21.
Impressed by his courage and willingness to help, we thus invited Felix to an interview where he openly discussed the preparations and the operation in detail, explained his motivation and talked about what he learned from the entire experience.

Editors: You had your blood typed by the AKB in February 2019 as part of the ASTech-organized donor drive. When were you notified that you were under consideration as a stem cell donor?
On May 28, three months after my blood was typed, I received a call that I had been identified as a potential stem cell donor. The first thing I had to do was to go to my family doctor and have extended blood work done in accordance with the guidelines of the AKB. This is used to identify the so-called HLA characteristics, which are needed to determine if a stem cell transplant is possible. The chances are 1:1,000,000. A match is literally like the proverbial needle in a haystack.

What happened then?
Since the results of extended blood work looked good, I was notified in July that I was in fact the “genetic twin” of an ill person. They then asked once again if I was willing to serve as a donor. After I said yes, I was asked to come to a pre-examination on August 7 in Gauting near Munich. This included a seven-hour, comprehensive exam with everything from blood work, x-ray and EKG, to an ultrasound of all organs, tests for infectious diseases and an in-depth discussion with the anesthesiologist. A precise time-plan for the stem cell donation was also put together. I now had it on paper: I was in completely good health.

When was the operation and how did work exactly?
After the successful analysis of all of my medical examinations, the AKB approved the procedure on August 13. After giving my consent, the stem cell recipient was conditioned. That means his chemotherapy was set at the maximum level in order to basically kill his immune system and make it ready for the transplant. My procedure took place a week later on August 21 and the transfusion for the recipient the following day. I had to drive to Gauting the day before, on August 20, to check-in to the clinic. After a new round of examinations and final tests, I was brought into the OP room at 10:30 am on August 21. They inserted a needle in four places over the pelvic bone and withdrew one liter of marrow, the liquid inside the bones. It took about an hour. After waking up from the anesthesia, I was laying on sandbags, which places pressure on the puncture points to stem the bleeding. I was well taken care of the entire time, which was just great. When I stood up for the first time at around 5.30 pm, with the help of the nursing staff, I was still really wobbly. I can imagine this is what a new-born giraffe must feel like. But all of that was over very quickly. I was released from the clinic the next day and my girlfriend drove me home.

How much time did you have to take off from work?
A total of only four days, but that always depends on how you feel. I was in good shape again after a short period of time and decided that I wanted and could go back to work. It felt good to be able to move around.

Who bears the cost for the procedure?
Health insurance providers bear the costs for the stem cell donation and transplant procedures. However, maintenance of the donor pool is the sole responsibility of the AKB, which diligently tries to find new stem cell donors through blood-typing drives for instance. These campaigns are required in order to offset donor shortfalls due to age restrictions or illnesses and in general to increase the number of donors. Still, the enormous costs involved in the registration process can only be financed through money donations since neither the health insurance providers nor the government cover these.
Luckily there are companies like ASTech, which organized a major blood typing campaign in February on its own premises and then motivated all of the employees to participate. At the same time ASTech and its employees initiated a donation campaign that resulted in a 10,000 euro check for the AKB. When it came to figuring out who was responsible for covering my loss of earnings, our managing director and head of human resources immediately stepped up and declared that ASTech was prepared to assume these costs, which took a great load off of AKB.

What happened next?
After the OP, the preparation, in other words my bone marrow, was treated at the AKB and cooled down to -193 degrees with liquid nitrogen, which made it transportable. In my case, it was flown to the recipient and transplanted on August 22. Now we have to wait for three months to see if the therapy is effective.

Do you know anything about the recipient? Would you like to meet him?
Everything is anonymously organized and carried out. The only thing I know is that the recipient is a young boy from the EU. In three months I will receive information regarding how everything is going and whether the transplant is showing signs of success. If both sides desire, we can establish anonymous contact via letter through the AKB. That’s something I would like to do of course. After all, if it’s possible, I would be interested in getting to know my “genetic twin” one day.

Did you have to think long and hard about becoming a stem cell donor?
Not really. I nevertheless took time to discuss it with my family. Luckily I ran into lots of support and discovered a lot of positive attitudes towards stem cell donations. That made my decision significantly easier.

What was the motivation behind your decision?
I work in the field of vehicle safety. My job is to make tomorrow’s vehicles safer and thus save lives. That means I already have a basic attitude toward this issue and feel like I have a personal responsibility to become involved. So I weighed the risks associated with my operation, with the risks that the recipient has if I don’t donate my stem cells: basically that he dies if I, as the “genetic twin”, decide to back-out over my own fears or concerns. I thus made my decision.

If there anything else you would like to share?
I’ve been very occupied with this issue since the first phone call. I learned that a stem cell donation depends on more than the stem cells themselves. Recipients also need lots of blood transfusions. Those who don’t want to register as a stem cell donor can nevertheless make a contribution by donating blood through the German or Bavarian Red Cross organizations (DRK/BRK). That’s really not a difficult thing to do.
I was impressed by the work that the AKB does. Donors get the absolute best treatment. The information and clarification that you receive from the AKB is excellent. It’s realistic and to the point. They don’t make you afraid, but they don’t sugarcoat it either. Everything occurred exactly the way it was explained to me. If I’m ever asked again, I would not hesitate to be a donor once again.
I’d also like to emphasize at this point that I’m happy to work here. As a medium-sized company, ASTech lives up to its corporate responsibility and proactively addressed the issue of stem cell donations this year by organizing a blood typing campaign and supporting the AKB with a large donation. This presented an opportunity for me to finally have my blood typed, which is something I wanted to do for a long time. The trigger was basically delivered to my inbox in the form of an Outlook invitation. It doesn’t get any easier than that. And when the time came for me to be a donor, ASTech stepped up to the plate and carried out the second step. The company supported me from the beginning and declared its willingness to bear the costs for the time that I had to take off. That was awesome!

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Being interviewed by ASTech Felix talks about how he became a bone marrow donor and thus a live saver – a really fascinating story.