Donna Dunn
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Day zero and beyond

Donna Dunn
Posted by
18 Jan 2017

Day one of the transplant process is very different to day zero of the actual transplant – here’s my family’s experience

Driving my teenage daughter Emily to be admitted to start her transplant for non-Hodgkin lymphoma was a very mixed bag. Having chemo to kill the cancer was, on reflection, a sort of reassuring process, compared to starting high-dose chemo to wipe part of Emily away.

The cancer was already history, and our remission deadline of 31 December had been achieved. Mission one: starting a new year cancer-free; tick. A stem cell match had been found. Mission two; tick. Three days of chemo and four days of total body irradiation later, Emily was moved into isolation on the transplant ward. She would be there for as long as it took for her new stem cells to grow, starting with day zero, transplant day, until day 100, when we hoped Emily would appear from her cocoon to start a new life. The end felt in sight. An end to cancer creeping in and eroding our family life. 

So we entered the transplant ward, aware that the stem cell donation was due to take place that day in a hospital somewhere in Spain. We knew it was too late to turn back (and why would we? It was our only hope of survival), but not knowing whether the donation had taken place was very unsettling. A lot of 'what ifs' swirled around my mind constantly over those few days.

Playing the waiting game

Meanwhile, our home action plan had kicked in. Our younger children had been taken on holiday. It hadn't been the initial plan, but our daughter Holly had found a lump. She had an emergency scan and biopsy and had been admitted to hospital for surgery – which would (you guessed it) take place the same day as Emily’s transplant. So shipping the two littlies away for a few days’ fun seemed like the best option. 

One hundred and twenty stairs separated our two girls. We ran up and down them for two days for updates and news. At the time, hearing the news that the cells had been delayed due to snow at the airport simply passed us by and actually gave us a little breathing space between procedures. 

So, 29 hours later than anticipated, with Holly safely at home recuperating, Emily’s new stem cells arrived. Not glistening and glowing like a magic lifesaving potion from a film, but more resembling a boring bag of platelets. Still lifesaving, but not the most exciting thing to photograph for a blog post. Forty minutes later, and it was all done. Bag empty. I don’t know what we exactly expected, but I think in our mixed-up heads we had sort of anticipated something to happen immediately. Not something as dramatic as Dr Who regenerating, but something a little less boring than watching every drop go in in silence. Emily described it as an anti-climax. Whatever we had expected, day 0 was not it.

The long climb

Emily being the science geek knew everything that was about to happen. She had no reservations. She knew the risks. She knew the next 100 days were going to be her Everest. And she knew there was no choice.

We had decided the only visitors would be me and Emily’s dad, Andrew. No siblings, and no friends. Just us, so we could protect Emily from infection the best we could. This would be extended to her three siblings once she came home, and her minister, until her immune system started to kick back in.

We did amazingly well. Emily didn't pick up anything and neither did I. Every time one of the children had a sniffle they were shipped off with Andrew to a relative or friend. That was difficult. We spent Easter apart due to a cold. So, even when Emily was home, we weren’t always together. But it was a good time. Day 100 arrived and my neighbour delivered a huge 100-shaped balloon. Getting it in my car and driving down the motorway was interesting! Walking through the hospital, everyone assumed I was visiting a 100-year-old relative spending this milestone in hospital, not my 17-year-old reaching an even bigger milestone. 

Unfortunately, the start of immunosuppression didn’t go to plan. Other complications caused more and more problems and Emily spent less and less time spent at home. In total, she spent 300 nights in isolation in hospital post-transplant. But Emily’s spirit never wavered and she continued to raise awareness, campaign and study from her hospital bed. Friends, family and people who followed her blog had no idea how unwell she was. I know we had no idea.

No regrets

We have no regrets about Emily’s transplant. It gave her an 18th birthday party with friends. She became a student and enrolled in university (submitting work from the high dependency unit a few days before she died). She took her youngest sister to a Santa Run. She watched a show Holly had choreographed. She taught her brother Evan to play scrabble. She played big sister. We had our first real family Christmas in three years. Sadly, it would also be our last.

We will be eternally grateful to the Spanish gentleman who was her match. It would be an honour to shake his hand and thank him for being so selfless. He will be forever my hero. 

We will now invest our time in fundraising to rebuild the transplant ward in her memory. A place where, one day, she had hoped to work.

Click here to learn more about Emily’s legacy and mission – to make remission possible for everyone.



Donna, thank you so much for sharing this. I can only imagine how immensely tough this must be to go through. It's clear that Emily was an incredibly kind-hearted person, and her strength and her passion for helping others is truly inspiring. Everything that you are all doing with RemissionPossible is incredible. Warm regards, Alice