"I had donated! I had potentially saved someone’s life." - Caitlin's blood stem cell donation story

24 August 2017

Even after registering as a potential blood stem cell donor, Caitlin didn’t expect to be a matching donor for someone in need, especially only seven months later. That was the case though when Caitlin went on to donate some of her blood stem cells…

Caitlin donating her blood stem cells

“I have always wanted to help others in any way possible, which inspired me to sign up for organ donation, blood donation and, of course, stem cell donation.

I first discovered DKMS through an advert on Facebook that popped up as I was scrolling mindlessly one day. I signed up online in July 2016 just after my 21st birthday, and within a few days my swab kit arrived! I was so eager to do this, that I completed my kit within the hour and had it sent off the same day, with great ease and excitement. Much to my boyfriend’s amusement, this was done through two swabs taken from the inside of each cheek to gather a sample for testing.

Shortly after I had sent it away, I got another letter through which stated that I had successfully been placed on the register! I got my donor card and a key fob which has been on my keys ever since. I happily stored my card in my purse and kept up to date with DKMS through social media.

I never really thought about being chosen to donate. I thought it would be one of those things I sign up to and never get chosen to do. But in February 2017, no more than seven months after I signed up, I got the call. The feeling you get when you are told you are even a potential match for someone is crazy. It just didn’t feel real! I was so excited and nervous at the same time. Everything was explained in full detail from the start, so I knew the next steps and what to expect. I was to go to my GP and get bloods taken for further testing, to confirm that I was an exact match. It took around a month to get the results back; I was a match!

The next step was a medical exam which would take place in London. I was flown down to London from Edinburgh for the day and the tests took a little over two hours. There were X-rays, ECGs and more blood was taken, as well as a health check by one of the wonderful doctors down there. I left feeling rather nervous about getting the results, hoping that everything would be alright and I would be allowed to donate. The wait for these results was not long at all thankfully, and I was called once more to confirm I was good to go. I was going to give someone a second chance at life!

Caitlin in her health check outfit

With the dates, travel and accommodation confirmed, the next step was to get an injection each day for the four days leading up to donating. These injections stimulate the growth of stem cells within the body, ready for collection. The team that administered these were incredible. They came to my home at a time which was convenient for me and were very friendly and chatty. There was even one day I was struggling to find a suitable time to be at home due to university, and they were so flexible and helpful that they ended up coming to my university building to meet me and administer my injection! I was warned about the minor side effects that could have come with these injections but I never experienced any of them.

The day before the donation, my boyfriend and I travelled down to London and checked into the hotel. This hotel was beautiful, not at all what we expected to be staying in, and it was less than 10 minutes’ walk from the hospital which was great. In preparation for the next day, we were settled in and in bed by 10! I knew all about the procedure and I knew it would be fine but I was so nervous. Nervous but ready to do it.

My donation was done through the most common method; peripheral blood stem cell donation. This means that blood would be taken from my left arm and filtered by a machine to collect the stem cells. The blood was then put back into my body through my right arm. The whole process took around seven hours and I was given a very yummy lunch after it was complete. The staff there were so nice and kept us up to date with the progress of the donation the whole way through. It was relatively painless, although after seven hours of keeping my left arm in the same position it was rather stiff!

An apheresis machine

Physically, I felt great after donating. I was slightly tired but I feel that that was mostly due to the early morning start (which I was not used to!). But emotionally I was overwhelmed. I had donated! I had potentially saved someone’s life. I could not get over how crazy it was, and the thought that someone out there in the world would be getting ready to receive my cells was just amazing. Part of me would be living in them. It was an incredible thought.

Caitlin with her blood stem cells

A couple of days later when I was back in Edinburgh I got a call from DKMS to tell me more about my cells and the patient who was receiving them. They told me the cells had been shipped off and would be given to a middle-age patient living in France! FRANCE! I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. I called my mum to tell her straight away and she was so proud. I can’t wait for my next update on the patient and hopefully they are on the road to recovery.

I wear my wrist band almost every day, to show how proud I am and to raise awareness of DKMS and the amazing work they do. Many of my friends have signed up after seeing me donating which is great to hear. I love that this experience has inspired more people to sign up, and I hope that people reading this will sign up too! It was such a privilege to donate and I still cannot believe that I have been one of the lucky ones chosen to do it. I wish my recipient so much luck and I hope that we will someday be in touch.
Thank you for reading my story!

Caitlin Mulhern,
A very proud stem cell donor.”

Inspired by Caitlin’s story? If you are in good health and are aged between 17 and 55 years, you can register as a potential blood stem cell donor too.

If you are not eligible or have already registered, why not check the other ways to get involved in the fight against blood cancer or help us cover donor registration costs?