Maria Schmiing is a DKMS employee and has also been a volunteer stem cell courier for about two years. A few days ago, she took a transplant from Germany to the US - a particularly difficult challenge in times of the COVID-19 crisis. Currently, entry to the US is only possible because DKMS, with the support of the US Stem Cell Donor Register: National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP/Be the Match), has obtained a special permit for stem cell couriers to enter the country - so that patients can receive urgently needed transplants.
"It was through an acquaintance of mine that I became aware of it several years ago. She is a teacher and carries out stem cell transports during the school holidays - I was immediately enthusiastic about it and signed up for it," says Maria Schmiing from Cologne. She applied to Ontime Onboard Courier GmbH, one of the transport companies that DKMS works with to bring life-saving blood stem cells to the recipients.
Maria's first assignment took her to Leiden in the Netherlands - an important place in the fight against blood cancer, as the World Marrow Donor Association (WMDA) has its headquarters there. "I was really excited before I even started the journey," she recalls.
Afterwards many further assignments followed, and it was because of this job as a courier that her desire to work at DKMS was born. "For me, the circle is complete; I'm doing something meaningful with my life. I am very aware of what I am doing this for: for the patients who need our help. What I think is great is that I am also really supported by my team and my managers, especially in the current situation."
Blood stem cell couriers like Maria Schmiing are currently in great demand to ensure that blood stem cell donations reach their recipients all over the world safely, even during the COVID-19 crisis. A few days ago the latest task for the 34-year-old was to travel to the US. "The procedure for a courier mission is actually always the same," she explains, "During the briefing the day before, we go through all documents together and the entire itinerary is discussed. Everything important detail is marked and addressed." But something is different at the moment: the couriers must carry a special permit that allows them to enter the US. "This must be presented upon entry and exit."
The next stop for Maria was the collection centre the next morning. There she received the life-saving blood stem cells from specially trained staff. These had previously been collected from a DKMS donor and prepared for transport. All documents and data were double checked based on the 4 eye principle before the transplant was handed over. "We especially look at the donor number and compare it, because we have to make sure that the patient receives the right transplant".
Afterwards Maria could start her journey. Stem cell couriers are allowed one additional piece of hand luggage only to be able to stay flexible on the way. "Most important are the blood stem cells or the bone marrow. We must not lose sight of the transplant during the entire journey. I look after this suitcase like my own personal treasure, like a mother who looks after her children. I am aware of the responsibility I carry and this stays with me until I have delivered the blood stem cells safely to the patient's clinic."
Before the departure to the US, she made sure that at the Frankfurt Airport the suitcase with the stem cells was not X-rayed. "I always explain that this is harmful to the transplant – something most people know. Only after an officer has brought the suitcase through the security area, do I then follow. This is the only time we hand the suitcase over to somebody else. Fortunately, there were no problems either at the security check or at customs.”
Once on the plane she informed the crew - an important and regular task for her - and did not let the suitcase out of her sight during the flight. "Sleep, of course, is out of the question. We are not allowed to drink alcohol 24 hours before and during the flight and we of course have to take the suitcase everywhere with us."
Upon arrival in the US, Maria noticed two differences "After landing, several security officers entered the plane and talked to the crew - only then were we allowed to disembark. In addition to this, they took the temperature of all passengers”.
She then continued her journey by taxi to the transplant clinic. "Everything went really well, and I was met at the clinic by a member of staff. Again there, we double checked everything and went through the documents according to the four eye principle. Once we get back to Germany, there is also a debriefing and I then return the suitcase."
After handing a transplant over, there is always a moment of great relief for Maria: "The tension disappears.” Afterwards she has a ritual, which is very important for her. "I go to the hotel, have a shower and then go out and raise a glass of beer for the patient. I think about how they are doing and what is still ahead of them. I then tell myself that from my side I've done everything I can to help them and I wish them all the best."
Going out and having a beer was not possible this time, as neither shops nor bars were open in the American city - even the hotel restaurant was closed. "I changed my ritual and toasted the unknown patient with a glass of tap water in my room!"
The next day she went back to Germany and soon the next flight will be scheduled for her - couriers are rare in this COVID-19 crisis-ridden time. "My learning from this journey: I will take an emergency ration of trail mix with me, you never know," she says with a wink. She reflects on her commitment to patients. "I am still available when my help is needed. I am aware of the risk and take the best possible care and comply with all safety precautions. It is also clear that patients cannot wait - and despite everything with the current situation they should still be given a chance at life.”
Learn more about how you can help delete blood cancer at DKMS.org
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KEYWORDS: DKMS, blood cancer, COVID-19, coronavirus, stem cells