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Lifesaver, in capital letters

’It is the nurses and physicians who do the real job – all I do is lie here.’ Gabriel looks me in the eye and seems to say this in all sincerity. From an outsider's point of view, however, he does a whole lot more than simply lie there, even though he is in a hospital bed. He is in the process of saving an unknown patient's life.

Officer candidate Gabriel Herrera read about the possibility of joining the Stem Cell Registry, when he was donating blood while doing his conscripted military service. He did not need to think twice about joining; a contributing factor was that a close friend of his had had leukaemia at the age of 16.

’Although, I think that I would have joined even without him, because donating stem cells seemed like such an effortless and concrete way of helping’, says Gabriel, when thinking about his decision.

After joining the registry, Gabriel donated blood about a dozen times and almost forgot that he was a member. Gabriel was 32 when the Stem Cell Registry contacted him almost ten years later and invited him to further studies for closer determination of his tissue type. His first reaction was: Really, me?

Really you

’I wondered if I could really be a suitable donor for some patient, as my genetic ancestry is not among the most traditional ones’, says Gabriel about his thoughts after the phone call. ’I pondered whether they had really called the right person’.

Further studies showed that Gabriel’s tissue type was just the right match for the patient needing a stem cell transplant. The son of a Finnish mother and a Chilean father could save the life of a cancer patient by donating stem cells. Gabriel did not hesitate for one moment.

’I knew immediately that I wanted to help. I was happy that I happened to have just the right genetic combination for some patient in the world’. My mother's first question was: ‘Oh my, won't that hurt? But only minutes later she shared how proud she was that she had a child who wanted to help his fellow man.

The future stem cell donor began to investigate more closely what the donation process was all about. When Gabriel had joined the registry, stem cells were mostly donated from bone marrow. He was surprised when he found out that currently more than 70 per cent of the stem cell donations are collected from the bloodstream.

’I would definitely have donated from my bone marrow as well, but it was nice to have this as an alternative’. Some of my friends would not dare to join the registry because they were scared of general anaesthesia and bone marrow donation. I guess people are not aware of this other donation method’, Gabriel ponders.

Before being selected as the final donor, Gabriel had to go through a physical examination lasting several hours, including a heart film and different tests. The purpose of such testing is to ensure the safety of the donation process for the donor and the patient.

’I wonder, whether astronauts even go through such a thorough health check’, Gabriel says with a laugh.
He says that, in the whole process, he was most concerned about what the health examination would reveal. What if malaria he had had as a child or some other health complication prevented the donation? After all, he had lived in such countries as Bangladesh, Nicaragua, India and Kenya, where his father had worked, and spent many vacations abroad.

Entering the donation process with curiosity

In preparation for the donation, Gabriel has visited the Meilahti Hospital for administration of growth factor injections, the purpose of which is to increase the number of stem cells in his bloodstream.

’I was warned that the injections might cause flu-like symptoms, so a minor rise in temperature and occasional aches did not give me a scare’, Gabriel says.

Now he is lying down in ward K10 of the Meilahti Hospital. Next door to him, there are seriously ill cancer patients – and among them there may be one expecting a transplant from Gabriel. Gabriel will never find out who gets the transplant. The recipient may also be in another country.

The nurse is present throughout the donation process, which takes five hours, monitoring that everything goes as intended. Every now and then, she and Gabriel engage in a pleasant conversation. The difference between stem cell donation and blood donation is that the apheresis device, making noise every now and then, separates stem cells from blood right then and there. The device collects Gabriel’s healthy stem cells from his bloodstream and returns the other blood components to his body. Due to growth factor injections, stem cell donors have more stem cells in their circulation than normal, so it is safe to collect the extra ones.

Gabriel does not admit to having been nervous about the donation process, but rather he was feeling curious and expectant.

“Now I feel really good and relaxed, I don't feel a thing”, he says with a smile from under the covers.
Donors are covered up for the duration of the donation process, and they may need a hot-water bottle by their side, because lying still for a prolonged period of time may cause them to shiver.
“They take good care of me”.

The life-saving elixir

The orange liquid slowly flows into a bag: a dose of stem cells to save someone's life. Once the transplant has been collected, its journey, for example, to a leukaemia patient or someone suffering from aplastic anaemia begins. In many cases, a stem cell transplant is the patient’s last hope of recovery when nothing else has worked.

Gabriel says that he is ready to donate another time if invited to do so, and he will also encourage his friends to join the registry.

’I am so happy that I can help someone in such an easy way. This is a really effortless way of helping in comparison to how important it is’.

Tomorrow the lifesaver will return to his normal life. There is no need for sick leave after the procedure. In his spare time, Gabriel likes to play the guitar, do wall climbing, scuba dive and play chess, among other things. He travels whenever he can. Next summer, he will visit Prague with his friends, and in the winter he will fly to Peru to see his father. Gabriel is a Master of Social Sciences by education. At home, he has a partner and a dog, which he, his sister and his mother own jointly.

’Living like a vagabond keeps your mind fresh’, Gabriel says with a laugh.
Maybe he is referring to himself as well.

Text: Anne Lind
Photo: Jari Härkönen

Published in 2015