Robin Roberts MDS: Bone Marrow Transplant Procedure Explained

ABC/Fred Lee(NEW YORK) -- Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts will undergo a bone marrow transplant to treat myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a disorder in which the bone marrow fail to produce enough healthy blood cells on Thursday.

Dr. Gail Roboz, who is helping Robin prepare her for her bone marrow transplant, appeared again on GMA on Thursday to discuss Robin’s treatment.

 “Everything is going great,” Roboz said.  “Medically speaking, everything is going fantastically.”

In preparation for the transplant – her sister Sally-Ann Roberts, who is a perfect match, was the donor — Robin underwent extensive chemotherapy. First, she received the “good” chemo, which boosted her blood cells and marrow to get her ready for the next phase, Roboz explained.

“We could see in watching Robin over the summer that she looked fantastic,” Roboz said. “She was having an easy time with it.  That was really MDS-directed treatment. That was to mow the lawn, get rid of as many MDS cells as possible, boost the bone marrow and get ready for the transplant.”

After that, the chemo Robin received was very different. For three days last week, she had chemo every six hours for two and a half hours. On Tuesday, she underwent 18 hours of uninterrupted chemo, which decimated her marrow and immune system. For now, she has no resistance to infection.

“This type of therapy over the last week has been much more intensive,” Roboz said.  “This isn’t just mowing the lawn and not getting rids of the weeds on top, it’s digging down deeper and really trying to empty out the bone marrow cells and get rid of the immune system cells so that the new ones from Sally-Ann can come on in.”

“Robin looks great,” she said. “She’s a powerhouse but she feels crummy.  Her mouth hurts. She’s got a headache that won’t quit. Nothing tastes right.  It’s hard to get up and even move around in the room.  This is someone who’s used to 50 hours a day and an athlete with tremendous stamina. It’s powerful to hear her say that reading a few emails or sitting up in bed is a lot of work.”

The transplant itself will take between 30 and 60 minutes, and when it’s done, Robin will be kept in room designed to keep the air as clean as possible — but she will not be totally isolated. Medical staff, friends and family will be able to visit, Roboz noted.

Even though Robin’s sister was a perfect match, Robin’s system will still try to attack the donor cells. Doctors will work to prevent any symptoms of graft vs. host disease — a rejection of the bone marrow transplant.

“This is the beginning of the rebuilding phase,” Roboz said. “Rebuilding is not immediate.  It takes weeks to months…These cells have to swim around.  There are millions of them being infused today into Robin.  They have to find out where they want to go and they have to rebuild her entire blood-forming and immune system.”

Robin’s time in the hospital will be determined by how well her body is adapting to the transplant.  The markers for recovery typically at 30 days and then 100 days post-transplant.

“Thirty days gets us to we hope that we see nice, normal blood counts,” Roboz said.  “We hope that we can stop supporting her with things through the IV because her systems are up and running but it still doesn’t mean she feels like Robin again.”

“It’s still very early,” she said. “We’re hoping that at that point approximately she’ll be able to get out of the hospital but there’s still a long process after that of fully regaining her strength and fully regaining all of the power that she needs to be back here.”

While Robin has the support of #teamRobin behind her, she is undergoing the procedure without her mom by her side, something that Roboz said has been difficult.  Lucimarian Roberts, Robin’s beloved mother, died Aug. 30 at the age of 88, just before Robin began her treatment.

“I think she misses her mom a lot and I think it’s been really hard to go through this,” Roboz said. “She said yesterday this is the first hard thing that she’s had to go through without her mom.  So I think that’s been a real challenge but she is a trooper and fighting through it and doing very, very well.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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