We caught up with Dr. Aldenhoven when she recently visited our UK offices and asked her about her role as one of our long-serving medical doctors.
We caught up with Dr. Aldenhoven when she recently visited our UK offices and asked her about her role as one of our long-serving medical doctors, responsible for clarifying donors’ health before they go into the physical examination at the collection centre ahead of their blood stem cell donation and why she’s still passionate about working for DKMS after 11 years.
Tell us about you and your interest in medicine?
My parents moved from South Korea to Germany when I was eight years old. My mother was a midwife and a nurse. At the time there was a lack of nurses in Germany in the 1970s, so we moved to Germany and settled in Cologne.
I started to become interested in the medical profession whilst at secondary school. I thought I would go into either psychology or medicine. I took the exams to allow me to go to medical school and I was pleased when I secured a place straight away.
When did you first hear about DKMS?
After giving birth to my second child my friend told me about DKMS, because she was looking for a part time post. Although I was a doctor I hadn’t heard of them prior to that conversation. My friend told me that she had seen a job advertisement in the newspaper looking for a doctor part time. I applied for the position and was offered the job. I was supposed to stay at DKMS for temporary period and go back into general practice. However, I am now in my 11th year with the company. I started in 2008 and still enjoy it.
What does your role as General Practitioner for DKMS consists of?
Mainly I am involved in finding the right donors for our patients and supporting them.
I am also involved in studies including long term follow-ups to ensure that our donors are safe. If any health issues are identified with a donor we generate detailed reports and often liaise with physicians to determine if the donor can proceed with the transplant. Even if the donor was the only donor in the world for that patient, their safety, along with that of the patient, has to come first.
Why is it so important for patients to find a match?
Finding a match could mean a second chance at life for the patient and for their families to know that they have additional time with their loved ones. Patients and families need that glimmer of hope that there are donors out there – strangers, who are willing to donate their blood stem cells. It must be a real boost to them.
How has the registration process developed over the years?
It is so much easier to register as a potential blood stem cell donor now. I remember a time when we used to take blood at donor registration events. Those events called for a doctor to be available because of the blood drawing which is an invasive procedure. It is easier now with the buccal swab method, where DNA is taken from the inside the cheeks of a potential lifesaver.
How does a blood stem cell transplant help a patient?
A blood stem cell transplant effectively gives the patient a brand new immune system. It gives the patient the immune system of their donor. Before this, the patient receives radiation to prepare them for the donation.
Can donors choose their donation method?
Normally, the method of donation depends on what would most benefit the patient. The patient’s consultants usually decides this. However, we would never put pressure on our donors, so there is scope for them to express a preference. For example, if someone has a bad back they may request the peripheral blood stem cell collection (PBSC) instead of a bone marrow collection.
The protection of our donors is a priority for us doctors at DKMS. Shortly before a long medical questionnaire donors are given a comprehensive medical investigation to make sure they are healthy and will not put the patient at risk. We adhere to very strict medical guidelines and we always take the health of the donor and patient very seriously. It isn’t a case of simply going to register and that’s it.
People don’t realise that it isn’t always a quick process where you donate right away - although this can happen. It’s a thorough process which involves going to the GP, and having blood tests and infection markers. If everything is fine then the patient is sent to see the physician at the collection centre, there they’ll receive a full physical examination.
Why do we register people up to the age of 55?
I think it’s good that we are accessible to such a wide age range of potential lifesavers. DKMS is 28 years old and has been in the UK for the past six years and we have proven that it is safe and beneficial to take people up to the age of 55. I recall many patients who have been given a second chance at life thanks to our older donors.
Will I permanently lose my blood stem cells?
No. The blood stem cells usually replenish within 2- 4 weeks by themselves.
What inspires you to come to work?
Our donors are very nice. They are so fun and enthusiastic, and really dedicated to the cause, even when I carefully explain that we have to think about their safety and protection.
I have to speak to so many donors so it helps when they are so determined to help a complete stranger. They are very special and I like to remind them that they are. The lengths they go to for a complete stranger is unbelievable. It’s such a privilege for me to be able to help patients and donors.
How you can help?
Are you inspired to help register potential lifesavers aged between 17-55? Then why not hold your own registration event in your home town or work place to help us to offer more second chances at life to people with blood cancers and disorders?