Whether it was the balloons or the lively rendition of “Happy Birthday,” it was impossible to miss the party room on the seventh floor of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on Wednesday morning.
It was East Valley High School math teacher Roger Jamison’s birthday. Or rather, his stem cell birthday.
Diagnosed with multiple myeloma last May, a joyful Jamison received Spokane’s 100th stem cell transplant.
In a crowd of onlookers, a woman from the blood bank removed bags of what looked like frozen, diluted blood from a liquid nitrogen tank and thawed them in warm water. Nurses then hooked the bags to a port in Jamison’s chest, and like a blood transfusion, his body was replenished with a few hundred million stem cells that were removed from his body last month.
The 20-minute procedure was a milestone for both Jamison in his fight against cancer and Dr. Hakan Kaya, who started the stem cell transplant program in 2005.
“I’m glad I’m 100,” Jamison said after his treatment. “And I’m excited for 101, 102, 103. It just means there’s so much research and there’s so much better things coming out for each person that wants to do this.”
Kaya joined Cancer Care Northwest in 2004 and quickly began Eastern Washington’s first program to transplant stem cells for patients with lymphoma and myeloma.
They did six transplants in 2005 and have grown the program to include referrals from around the state and Idaho and Montana. While the procedure is not new to the fight against blood cancers, patients previously had to go to Seattle for the treatment, where they had to stay for three months through chemotherapy and checkups.
“It’s a lot of financial hardship and emotional hardship,” Kaya said. “Here when they are in the hospital, their family and friends can visit them every day. They can stay with them.”
Local patients also only need to stay in the hospital for a few weeks at a time.
For Jamison, that’s meant having the company of his wife, Pamela, and a return to the classroom as he goes through treatments.
“Going back and teaching as much as I can has been very helpful,” he said. “It’s very therapeutic.”
After 100 patients, Kaya said the practice is growing, but patients still occasionally get referred to Seattle. Kaya said they should ask their doctors about opportunities to stay local.
The goal of the transplant is to protect a patient’s healthy cells while attacking cancer cells.
If a patient needs a high dose of chemotherapy, like what is often needed to cure lymphoma or treat myeloma, doctors want to preserve the healthy stem cells, which make blood and do not grow back. The procedure filters the stem cells out of the patient’s bone marrow and into the blood, where it is collected by a machine and stored in a cooler at negative 165 degrees. The patient is then given the high-dose chemotherapy, hopefully killing the cancer cells. A day later the stem cells are put back into the body unharmed.
“Those stem cells are really smart,” Kaya said. “They kind of look around and then go back to the bone marrow. It takes about a week or so to replenish the bone marrow, and then the patient survives.”
While myeloma is not a curable disease, Kaya said the transplant puts patients in remission for much longer.
“In multiple myeloma, there’s a new therapy like every few months,” Kaya said. “There are always new drugs. By doing a stem cell transplantation, you give them an opportunity to use the new drugs when they are available.”
At 63 years old, Jamison said he hasn’t given any thought to not surviving his cancer. A former conductor for the Ohio State University Marching Band, he said he plans to be back teaching and playing percussion for the Spokane Civic Theatre in the spring.
“You don’t have to be sick and think it’s going to be the end,” Jamison said. “You just have to think about the positives.”