What goes on behind the scenes when a patient needs a bone marrow stem cell transplant

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When a serious blood disorder threatens a patient’s life, Zaahier Isaacs is called on to identify stem cell donors that could save a patient from death’s grip.
When a serious blood disorder threatens a patient’s life, Zaahier Isaacs is called on to identify stem cell donors that could save a patient from death’s grip.
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What does your dad do for a living?

For someone who works at the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), like Zaahier Isaacs, answering, "He saves lives" wouldn't be an exaggeration.

Since 2018, this is what his teens could tell their friends.

But nowadays, his son, Thaamir (22) and his daughter, Khulood (20), are a big too big for that. However, the whole family still feels the pride that comes with knowing their dad is a lifesaver.

The Cape Flats-born father of two tells us about his job as head of patient services at the SABMR and reveals what goes on behind the scenes when a patient needs a bone marrow stem cell transplant.

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Most patients who need a bone marrow or stem cell transplant may only have a few weeks or months to live depending on their disease status, which means Zaahier and his team need to move fast.

While at home in Surrey Estate Athlone – where he was born and bred – he can relax by doing a bit of gardening, cooking and art, his favourite pastimes, work is decidedly less chilled.

“My job requires the constant monitoring for any, and all correspondence related to a request we placed at these registries and updating these records daily," says Zaahier (53). 

“Being at the frontline of the donor search process means that every second counts.

“Within a matter of minutes, a case can be escalated to ‘urgent’, so you can’t afford for human error to creep in.” 

A typical day at the office involves responding to new search requests for patients, which must be completed and reported within 24 hours. All the SABMR searches are done via a global system, which connects most of the registries across the world, he explains.

Read more | Are we there yet? Scientist explains if we’re any closer to a cure for HIV after third person healed

Zaahier's interest in life sciences began in 1985 at age 15 when his mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma and was given only three months to live.

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Zaahier and his wife, Zuraina, with son Thaamir and daughter Khulood.
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Zaahier and his wife, Zuraina, with son Thaamir and daughter Khulood.

“Seeing my mom go through weeks of chemotherapy, all while the police chased my friends (during the time of the riots on the Cape Flats), was an emotional rollercoaster.

"The prevailing factor was my mom’s courage and will to survive. She decided to go against the grain and to stop conventional treatment in favour of the natural route. This, miraculously, made her beat her prognosis by 27 years. She passed recently at age 77 of old age.”

After completing a degree in Medical Laboratory Technology in 1991, Zaahier worked in Transplantation Immunology dealing with bone marrow cases. The SABMR was established at this time at the same laboratory as the need for unrelated matched donors increased.

So her readily signed up as a donor and would often volunteer and assist with donor drives hoping a position would open up at the registry. The next decade saw him working between two countries in the field of solid organ and bone marrow transplantation.

Between 2002 and 2017 he gained experience in general immunology, HIV vaccine research, blood banking and molecular HLA typing. Finally, after waiting 26 years, an opening became available at the SABMR in 2018 and he felt like he came full circle.

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The odds of finding an ideal tissue match is one in 100 000. In the past year, the SABMR has connected more than 35 patients with suitable donors.

Read more | There's an urgent need for more black people to register as stem cell donors – here’s why

“Working in Patient Services is not a walk in the park. You are dealing with patients who are fighting for their lives and in some small way, we become part of that fight too. It is a hard and arduous journey for patients, and our job is to give them hope through our support services, which can include counselling, education, dedicated donor drives and/or fundraising as well as scientific explanations to keep them informed and empowered. 

“In instances where patients can’t afford the cost of a matched unrelated donor search or the stem cell transplant itself, my team and I assist by applying for funds via the registry’s Patient Assistance Programme. Since launching the programme in 2018, more than 40 patients have benefited.”

After almost four years in the job, he still chokes up every time a patient makes it to transplant stage and is thankful to have been part of that journey.

“I wake up every day with the purpose of providing access to lifesaving treatment (in the form of stem cell donation) for patients who rely on me and my team. It is humbling, gratifying and I never forget that there is a patient entrusting me to do my utmost. I am where I’m meant to be,” he says. 

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This is what happens when a patient gets a bone marrow stem cell transplant.

As the only internationally accredited donor registry in South Africa, the SABMR currently facilitates donor related services for most SA patients in need of a stem cell transplant.

For more info about the SABMR and the type of career opportunities that exist, contact them on 021 447 8638 or visit www.sabmr.co.za

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