How We Chose the Transplant Center for Me

By | April 3, 2013

After an absolutely wonderful escape to Sicily, Robert and I returned home ready to tackle the next big adventure.  Where should I go for the stem cell transplant?  Who will be my donor?


Robert, Mom, and I met with Dr. Lawrence Morris of Bone and Marrow Transplant Group of Georgia in Atlanta. This group is under contract with our health insurance provider.
Here’s what we learned:
About the Blood and Marrow Transplant Group & Facilities at Northside
Dr. Lawrence Morris came into our appointment well-versed in my condition and situation. Right off the bat he noted that I must be tired of hearing doctors say that I have an unusual and complicated case. 
The transplant group did 186 transplants in 2012 and their success rate exceeds the “Confidence Interval” (the expected success rate is determined for each center after controlling for the diseases transplanted, age of patients, co-morbidities, etc.). He said only 10 centers in the US exceeded their confidence interval. 
This center is well-within the top 10% of transplant centers in terms of scale. It’s not a mega-center (like MDAnderson, City of Hope, Hutchinson, or Sloan-Kettering…)
Transplant Protocol
The transplant process would be managed mostly on an out-patient basis. This is very different from the Mayo process (5-6 weeks in the hospital). The chemo and the transplant would take place in their out-patient transfusion center. About one week after the transplant, I’d be admitted to the Transplant floor at Northside for 10-20 days, depending on how the engraftment is going, my vitals, any signs of rejection, etc. After release from the hospital, I will still go to the out-patient center daily and then every other day for check-ups. He said that at any point in the process, I could be admitted immediately to the hospital’s transplant unit should that be necessary. 
They have better outcomes with the out-patient process, and I’d rather barf in my own toilet anyway. 
About My Situation
Dr. Morris explained the reasons why a stem cell transplant (SCT) is appropriate for me and the additional risks that I face. The Behcet’s auto-immune issue is a bit of a wild-card. The portal vein thrombosis is also an issue; since my body has created new varices to deliver blood from the liver, we need to look and see if a similar thing has occurred in the esophagus (treatment would be required).

Transplants due to Myelofibrosis
He also identified the issues specific to transplants due to myelofibrosis: there is additional stress on the body due to years of medications, fibrosis in the bone marrow, and concern for stress on spleen, liver, heart, and lungs. That was a huge piece of helpful information for me because Dr. Fauble at Mayo said that there are unique post-transplant issues for MF patients but didn’t specify what they are.
Given the stress on my body, he expects that the preparation regimen will be something between a full-in ablative chemo and the reduced intensity protocol.

Decisions, Decisions

After our Mayo and Northside appointments, Mom, Robert and I talked about the big, burning question: where to have the transplant. We want to go to the center that will have the best chance for a favorable outcome. 
The primary considerations: quality of care/experience;  quality of life for me & family;  insurance/financial considerations.
In the end, we are in agreement to have the transplant here in Atlanta.
Here’s our rationale: 
Quality of Care/Experience:
  • We looked at outcomes data and experience at Northside, Mayo-Scottsdale, MDAnderson, and others. Since there are very few transplants for MF, the disease specific data is hard to get. None of them do more than 2-3 per year for myelofibrosis. 
  • Northside does enough transplants and participates in research; it’s not a side business. It also does a great job – the docs have outcomes that exceed expectations and the transplant unit is state-of-the art.  
  • They know the risks and issues associated with my particular situation. 
I don’t believe we are compromising the care by staying here.  This group would be my local post-transplant support regardless of where the procedure is done. 
Quality of Life
  • I really want to be close to Alexander during his Senior year in college. Whether I’m in the hospital, an apartment near the hospital or at home, he will be able to come visit regularly.
  • Robert can do his job and he won’t have to choose whether to stay with Alex on weekends or fly to see me somewhere. 
  • Staying local will also help me stay out of the depression zone because I won’t feel as isolated from my loved ones. I do better keeping my game face on when I’ve got good reasons to do so. 
  • The out-patient protocol appeals to me a great deal. I recall going stir-crazy the last few days of my 2 week hospital stay back in 2007. Being confined for weeks is not appealing to me at all.    
  • We have many friends who are willing to form a ‘care team’ to help out as the journey continues (it will be a marathon, not a spring). 
Insurance/Financial:
  • I was initially inclined to go to Mayo-Scottsdale (as you all know). After looking at the data and meeting with the Northside doc, we’d have an uphill battle to get insurance to pay out of network.  I don’t think we can make a compelling case that I’ll get superior care elsewhere based on the data. 
  • I don’t want the added stress of insurance and financial burdens.
  • Kaiser Permanente has excellent coverage if we do the procedure here. 
I’m glad we got the diagnosis and recommendations from Mayo first. Not only did it give us time for the info to settle into our minds and hearts, it gave me time to do more research, both data and anecdotal, before meeting with the folks that our insurance will cover.
We ran through several scenarios and the biggest question: If things go poorly here at Northside, is there going to be any shoulda/woulda/coulda discussions? 
There really isn’t a stand-out, slam dunk transplant center that we dismissed. So we are in agreement.
So on we go… no regrets!

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