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How does a person live after a bone marrow transplant?

A friend has AML and will undergo a bone marrow transplant. Can she go back to her old job after the transplant? Can she live a normal life? How many years more?

HANDLING EMOTIONAL STRESS
In addition to the physical discomfort associated with the transplant experiance there is emotional and psychological discomfort as well. Some patients find the emotional and psychological stress more problematic than the physical discomfort.

The psychological and emotional stress stems from several factors. First, patients undergoing transplants are already traumatized by the news that they have a life-threatening disease. While the transplant offers hope for their recovery, the prospect of undergoing a long, arduous medical procedure is still not pleasant and there's no guarantee of success.

Second, patients undergoing a transplant can feel quite isolated. The special precautions taken to guard against infection while the immune system is impaired can leave a patient feeling detached from the rest of the world and cut off from normal human contact. The patient is housed in a private room, sometimes with special air-filtering equipment to purify the air. The number of visitors is restricted and visitors are asked to wear gloves, masks and/or other protective clothing to inhibit the spread of bacteria and virus while visiting the patient. When the patient leaves the room, he or she may be required to wear a protective mask, gown and/or gloves as a barrier against infection. This feeling of isolation comes at the very time in a patient's life when familiar surroundings and close physical contact with family and friends are most needed.

'Helplessness" is also a common feeling among bone marrow transplant patients, which can breed further feelings of anger or resentment. For many, it's unnerveing to be totally dependent on strangers for survival, no matter how competent they may be. The fact that most patients are unfamiliar with the medical jargon used to describe the transplant procedure compounds the feeling of helplessness. Some also find it embarrassing to be dependent on strangers for help with basic daily functions such as using the washroom.

The long weeks of waiting for the transplanted marrow to engraft, for blood counts to return to safe levels, and for side effects to disappear increase the emotional trauma. Recovery can be like a roller coaster ride: one day a patient may feel much better, only to awake the next day feeling as sick as ever.

LEAVING THE HOSPITAL
After being discharged from the hospital, a patient continues recovery at home (or at lodging near the transplant center if the patient is from out of town) for two to four months. Patients usually cannot return to full-time work for up to six months after the transplant.

Though patients will be well enough to leave the hospital, their recovery will be far from over. For the first several weeks the patient may be too weak to do much more than sleep, sit up, and walk a bit around the house. Frequent visits to the hospital or associated clinic will be required to monitor the patient's progress, and to administer any medications and/or blood products needed. It can take six months or more from the day of transplant before a patient is ready to fully resume normal activities.

During this period, the patient's white blood cell counts are often too low to provide normal protection against the viruses and bacteria encountered in everyday life. Contact with the general public is therefore restricted. Crowded movie theaters, grocery stores, department stores, etc. are places recovering BMT patients avoid during their recuperation. Often patients will wear protective masks when venturing outside the home.

A patient will return to the hospital or clinic as an outpatient several times a week for monitoring, blood transfusions, and administration of other drugs as needed. Eventually, the patient becomes strong enough to resume a normal routine and to look forward to a productive, healthy life.

LIFE AFTER TRANSPLANT
It can take as long as a year for the new bone marrow to function normally. Patients are closely monitored during this time to identify any infections or complications that may develop.

Life after transplant can be both exhilarating and worrisome. On the one hand, it's exciting to be alive after being so close to death. Most patients find their quality of life improved after transplant.

Nonetheless, there is always the worry that relapse will occur. Furthermore, innocent statements or events can sometimes conjure up unpleasant memories of the transplant experience long after the patient has recovered. It can take a long time for the patient to come to grips with these difficulties.

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