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Volunteer couriers travel world to transport life-saving stem cells

Group Picture

Margaret Angus

Sue Baldwin’s carry-on luggage is unlike that of most travellers.

Baldwin and the other eight members of the Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) volunteer courier program travel the world to retrieve the cells for patients needing a stem cell transplant. Most of these patients have a form of blood cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma.

Baldwin has been a volunteer with the program since it began five years ago.

Previously, travel for retrievals was undertaken by the program’s two BMT coordinators. However, this resulted in poor work-life balance and a lot of time away from family. In addition, the considerable overtime hours needed each year resulted in significant financial cost to the health system.

Program manager Shelley Brown said the need for stem cell transplants is far greater today than when the program started 25 years ago.

“Initially the program was built to serve 20 patients a year,” she said. “Now there are more than 100 transplants a year and we expect to see that number continue to rise.”

Volunteers like Baldwin must meet specific eligibility criteria to be considered for the role, including:

  • • Extensive travel experience, including to international destinations.
  • • Flexibility to travel on short notice to any assigned destination.
  • • Residence within a 40-kilometre radius of the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

“The most important qualities we were looking for were critical thinking and an ability to solve problems,” said Berni Duda, assistant manager of volunteer services.

Those selected as volunteers went through intensive training, including the hands-on packing of cells in mock retrieval scenarios. They also completed a written test and a health questionnaire.

“The volunteers are so well trained,” said Brown. “We’ve had so few issues and the program has been very successful.”

While the program tries to find stem cell matches in Canada first, “it comes down to the best match of cellular markers,” said Brown.

This sometimes requires international travel. “Volunteers have to be in the city the day before the retrieval,” Brown said. “They are usually away two to four days.”