GHS expanded blood and marrow transplant program offers first-in-Upstate transplant options

A bone marrow transplant can be a life-saving technique when all other options are exhausted. But this therapy can also force some transplant patients to be isolated from family and friends far from home for as much as 100 days – until now.

Greenville Health System, one of the few hospitals in S.C. where blood and marrow transplants are available, has expanded its transplantation program, making it the first program in the Upstate to provide donor-match options for unrelated donors or half-matched related donors.

Transplantation in some half-matched related donors may allow the option of a less-intense chemotherapy being used, which would allow older, less-fit patients to receive this potentially curative therapy. The ability to treat older patients is especially important as the incidence of these blood-related cancers increases with age.

“Excellent medical treatment is critical, but, frankly, so is family support,” said Dr. Suzanne Fanning, the program director and a nationally recognized hematologist/medical oncologist. “It is incredibly important that patients be treated close to home, where they can continue to receive support from family and see their loved ones within the safe confines of a closed unit.”

“A cancer diagnosis is daunting enough without facing the additional emotional and cost burden of upending your family for as much as 100 days – or being forced to undergo therapy alone because of temporary relocation costs or the hardships associated with leaving jobs and schools,” said Fanning.

The $2 million expansion – funded through an outpouring of community support – includes an up-to-99-percent purified air system, an “outdoors-in”-driven interior, large patient rooms for enhanced patient and family support and a dedicated nursing staff with closer access to patient rooms. The expansion will also feature an “emotionally uplifting environment” complete with music therapy, art therapy and an exercise suite. GHS has matched the local philanthropic support by expanding the program infrastructure to allow for a third transplant physician, specially-trained pharmacist and additional RN transplant coordinator.

“Cancer is a horrible and dehumanizing disease that turns your life upside down,” said Bill McCrary, who, with his wife Esta, donated the seed money that led to the $2 million community investment. “There’s probably not a single person in the Upstate who hasn’t had some contact with cancer – if not in their own family, then in their friends. It is always a disruptive event – but especially when patients have to travel for care. We’re thrilled that we can help provide this wonderful option for families to be able to stay local and still get the great care they need.”

“Greenville is an amazingly giving community,” he said. “We believe that giving is contagious and hope that even more people will join with us in supporting the program. “We think it’s very true that ’there is more happiness in giving than receiving.’” The expanded unit has been named the McCrary Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit.

If cancer is a de-humanizer, then local support helps put the emphasis back on the patients and their care champions. Esta McCrary still remembers how overwhelmed she felt when rushing to the GHS Bryan Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to visit a premature grandchild – until the doors opened and she saw that the unit was named for Greenville philanthropist and friend B.K. Bryan.

“When those doors opened and I saw B.K.’s name, I just knew we were going to be OK. Seeing our friend’s name helped personalize a very unfamiliar place for me,” said Mrs. McCrary. “I knew that the staff would be caring and wonderful – and they were. We want to give that same sense of comfort to patients and families in the transplant unit.”

Blood and marrow transplantation is an aggressive therapy for patients with diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Some solid tumors, including advanced testicular cancer and other blood-borne diseases such as aplastic and sickle cell anemias, are also treated with this potentially curative therapy. In some cases, donor marrow cells are obtained from the donor’s pelvic bone. More commonly however, peripheral blood stem cells are obtained from a temporary catheter placed in the donor’s neck. In fact, bone marrow transplants are frequently referred to as peripheral blood stem cell transplants.

The healthy donor cells are preserved, then infused into the patient’s body to essentially replace diseased or treatment-damaged bone marrow. It can take up to 30 days for the healthy donor cells to grow and spread throughout the patient’s body. In some cases, the healthy cells allow patients to continue undergoing aggressive therapies like chemotherapy. In other cases, these new cells actually help kill cancer cells.

The expanded unit will be able to treat as many as 80-90 patients a year, but the real benefit is that patients won’t have to travel so far from home for the lengthy treatments.

For patient Andrea Massey, a mother and teacher diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, the expanded unit let her stay close to home and share Friday-night-sleepovers with her 10-year-old daughter, Makenna.

“The unit became like a second family to us,” said Massey. “I stayed a total of 130 days in the unit during my first chemo regimen and stem cell transplant. None of these things would have happened if I had to go out of town for my transplant. I was able to have my family members close and never spent the night alone. Either my mother, my husband or a friend was able to stay with me every night. My dad was able to pick up my daughter, who was in fifth grade at the time, and bring her to the hospital at least every other day.”

Massey was first diagnosed with AML in September 2013 and immediately began an aggressive chemotherapeutic regimen. The cancer returned after a six-month remission, and physicians began discussing the possibility of an unrelated-donor transplant with her since there wasn’t a match within her family. An anonymous match was found through the National Marrow Donor Program.

A bone marrow biopsy at the 100-day mark showed that the donor cells had completely replaced her own marrow cells – and that no leukemia cells were present.

Massey, who had more than 40 blood or platelet transfusions, says she’s profoundly grateful for the community support that funded the expanded unit. “And I’m forever grateful to my anonymous stem cell donor, who I hope to meet in March for the first time on the one-year anniversary of her transplant.”

“I pray that more and more people will donate stem cells and bone marrow,” she said. “It is easy to swab your cheek and join Be the Match. You never know whose life you might save.”

The GHS Cancer Institute is the state’s only collection site for the National Marrow Donor Program. Since it began, the donor collection program has had more than 150 donor referrals. These donor cells have been collected and sent regionally as well as nationally to support patients with life-threatening diseases.

The region’s first blood and marrow transplant was done at GHS in 1992. Recent research has led to many successful breakthroughs such as the use of half-match donations from some family members. That means that parents, siblings, and even children can potentially provide the life-saving cells that patients need. This means that more people than ever before may be able to benefit from blood and marrow transplants. For many diseases, a blood or marrow transplant is the only cure at this time.

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