As we go through the bone marrow transplant journey and are into the post 100+ days period (we are at Day 126), family and friends are wondering why they still cannot visit or come to our home for playdates when Kate does get home. I thought an explanation here might help:
To prepare Kate’s body for a bone marrow transplant, she was required to undergo ~9 days of intensive preparatory chemotherapy and immune suppression. From the moment we walked into her room on the 3rd floor of Ste.Justine’s hematology oncology building, we were masked, gowned, and became obsessive hand washers. Anything that came into Kate’s room had to be sanitized – toys, clothes, bedding from home, iPads, cell phones etc. ‘Visitors’ were limited to a finite list of 7 people that were very well briefed on protective isolation protocol. We ensured that list was comprised of people who could commit to helping us care for Kate while she was undergoing her bone marrow transplant, and we negotiated for her brother to be added as a #8 to that list. (He was amazing with adhering to the protocols – very conscientious).
We were required to maintain this ‘protocol’ from the moment Kate started her preparatory regimen until her neutrophils were back above 0.5
Neutrophil granulocytes (also known as neutrophils) are the most abundant (40% to 75%) type of white blood cells in mammals and form an essential part of the innate immune system. They are formed from stem cells in the bone marrow. They are the ‘first responders’ in case of a bacterial infection. (Interesting fact: they are the predominant cells in pus, accounting for the yellowish/whitish appearance.)
Once above 0.5 we were allowed to remove our gowns and masks, but hospital personal and anyone else entering her room had to keep masks on. Hand washing and sanitizing were still very important. With her neutrophil count above 0.5 Kate had limited protection against bacteria, but still had no immunity against common viruses (e.g. the common cold), or fungus (fungal infections). Isolation was very important.
As Kate recovered her blood counts her ‘neutropenia’ (neutrophils below 1.0) continued to have ups and downs. Her body was weak and needed ongoing protection. She was also taking heavy doses of methylprednisone to control her graft versus host disease, and cyclosporine to suppress her new immune system (to prevent GVHD). When she exited her room she was required to wear a N95 mask to protect her from airborne viruses. She was also to stay away from other people as much as possible. Her room continued to be kept as a ‘clean space’ and her home was also meant to be a ‘clean space’ with limited visitors (at our discretion), because of her immune suppression.
As you all know, Kate wasn’t home long, she was back in hospital less than 72 hours after being discharged to home. When she returned to hospital, she was again confined to her room and protective isolation protocols were put in place again. Mask, hand washing, limited visitors (immediate caregivers and helpers only).
Now that we are back at Ste.Justine, on the post-BMT unit, this protective isolation protocol remains in place. We have GVHD, and the treatment of this is immune suppression which makes Kate more vulnerable to infection. Kate is allowed to leave her room her, but can only ‘play’ on the 3rd floor BMT unit. She can’t visit the playroom on her floor (post BMT recovery), or be near any other children or parents on the hematology oncology unit. Her room is limited to her nurses and to visitors that are ‘approved’. This means that as her parents, we can choose who comes into her room, but we have been educated to be cautious and limit how may people interact with Kate from the outside. It is for her protection as she continues to be immune suppressed.
We are so grateful for the offers of help and support. Many of you have been so willing to come and see us in Montreal, and it is sooo difficult to say no. But we have to. Believe me, we would love the help and assistance, as there is no doubt there is a lot fatigue among Brian and I and those who have been helping us. But to protect Kate, I have to say no.
We have limited our ‘caregiving team’ here to what is essential and to those that have been trained and understand the isolation protocols and we are grateful for their continued support.
Once Kate returns home, she will continue to be immune suppressed and we won’t be able to have visitors at our home. She will get to go outside and see people from a distance, but not much more. Crowded places are a risk for her. This protective isolation will end when her immune suppression ends and when her CD4 +T helper cells start to recover. This will be another important milestone for us as it will signal that she has better protection against viruses and fungal infections.
CD4+ T helper cells are white blood cells that are an essential part of the human immune system. They are often referred to as CD4 cells, T-helper cells or T4 cells. They are called helper cells because one of their main roles is to send signals to other types of immune cells, including CD8 killer cells, which then destroy the infectious particle. If CD4 cells become depleted, for example in untreated HIV infection, or following immune suppression prior to a transplant, the body is left vulnerable to a wide range of infections that it would otherwise have been able to fight.
We are watching what is called the CD4 count in Kate’s bloodwork. A consistent count above 200 is the goal. We anticipate that being sometime in October/November. At that point restrictions will be lifted, but we still need to be cautious as Kate’s new immune system will have not been exposed to viruses that are common and will have to be revaccinated against childhood disease.