Feeling grateful on my 8th stem cell transplant birthday

Reflections on the aHSCT process and my celebration-of-life ceremony

Ahna Crum avatar

by Ahna Crum |

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June is a special month for me. Eight years ago I had an autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant (aHSCT) in Moscow to treat my multiple sclerosis (MS). On June 22, I celebrated my eighth stem cell birthday!

A stem cell transplant, or “stemmie day,” is when patients have their harvested stem cells reinfused back into their bodies, which grow to form a brand-new immune system.

A black-and-white photo shows a doctor affixing an iris pin to a woman's shirt on the day of her stem cell transplant.

Denis Fedorenko, a hematologist in Moscow, presents Ahna Crum, right, with an iris pin during her celebration-of-life ceremony in 2016. (Courtesy of Ahna Crum)

The aHSCT process isn’t exactly a cakewalk up to this point; rather, it’s a whirlwind of being poked, prodded, and embracing the unknown. At this stage, my stem cells had been harvested and my immune system wiped out with chemotherapy, and I was preparing for a period of isolation and side effects from not having any remnant of an immune system. My body had started to undergo a myriad of changes, and I was just along for the ride, without any control over what came next.

The day I had my stem cells reinfused, the stress and uncertainty faded away, exchanged for a celebration. During the aHSCT process, I’d built a steadfast network of companionship, support, and comfort with other patients and even staff, all of whom prioritized celebrating with me the chance of a brand-new beginning during a ceremony after the transplantation procedure.

Denis Fedorenko, a leading hematologist in Russia, and his team valued all of the statistics and research available, but they also made a point to emphasize the importance of family, support, communication, and attitude in successfully fighting this disease.

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A close-up photo shows a white pin featuring an iris and the words "New Life." It's attached to a blue piece of fabric, perhaps a shirt or a sweater. Both are lying atop a June 2016 edition of the Russian newspaper "Zhizn," meaning "Life."

The iris pin, representing a new beginning, is given to patients on their stem cell transplantation day. (Courtesy of Ahna Crum)

During this special tradition, patients are gifted a pin with a picture of an iris. The flower was chosen because it represents enduring hope and courage through a rough journey, a new beginning, and newly blossomed friendships.

In the words of Denzel Washington’s character John Hobbes in the 1998 film “Fallen,” “There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts, before this, and after this.”

My life is divided into two segments: before aHSCT and after aHSCT. Since the transplant, I’ve celebrated my new lease on life by marking my transplant day not with gifts, but with an activity that, at one point in my life, I was unable to do as a result of multiple sclerosis.

Instead of feeling isolated, I’ve traveled to spend time with family; instead of facing heat intolerance, I’ve enjoyed a day outside kayaking in the sun; instead of spasticity controlling my hands, I’ve made my way up indoor rock-climbing courses; instead of fearing cognitive impairment, I’ve had fun with friends puzzling through escape rooms; instead of tripping because of my foot drop and worrying about balance, I’ve navigated through a ropes course in the trees.

This transplant birthday marked eight years of no MS progression or disease activity! Because my battle with avascular necrosis led to a couple recent surgeries, I didn’t participate in anything too physically extreme. But this day is one I continue to recognize, reflecting on where I’ve been, becoming overwhelmed with gratitude for how far I’ve come, and reminding myself that anything is possible.

Two side-by-side photos show a woman before and after her stem cell transplant for MS. On the left, she is walking on a sidewalk with a rollator and wearing shaded glasses. On the right, she's navigating a ropes course among the trees.

Left: Ahna Crum uses a rollator in 2016, pre-aHSCT. Right: Ahna celebrates a stem cell birthday on a ropes course in 2019. (Courtesy of Ahna Crum)

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Sheryl Nygard avatar

Sheryl Nygard

Hello! What a great journey you have been on! My question would be how in the heck did you find this therapy... I have been diagnosed since 1984 come up and within the last 5 to 10 years it is taking me down. 15 years ago I played on three softball teams and one traveling team. At this point in time I can't even fathom running around the bases. Keep involved I am the score keeper because I love the game. Anyway I digress... I have also an aggressive form of relapsing MS and my mri's come back as everything stable, I take my medication every day, I'm sedentary and I do nothing but gain weight. I don't even eat... I have prayed for stem cell therapy to become available here in the United States... but as you know, that's not going to happen there's no money in the cure. I don't know if you feel comfortable sending me information about your experience and how to get in touch with these people and... well you know. I am so happy to read your story and see your pictures of your journey and how you are turning life around!! I totally look forward to hearing from you! Thank you so much for your time!

caroline ornstein avatar

caroline ornstein

Is this done in the U.S.?
Does everyone have such wonderful results?
I have M.S. for over 20 years. I'm too old for this but it is really important.
Thank you for this article.

Steve Pryer avatar

Steve Pryer

Good for you that you never give up ❗️

Why are the governments of North America not embracing this technology and making it available to all ❓
It has been proven safe and effective
Much better than all the meds that are pushed at us

Susanne B avatar

Susanne B

How long did you have MS before you had the treatments? I’ve had it 37 years ( before there were any drugs) and now is Secondary Progressive. Just wondering if it would help me.

Stacyann Campbell avatar

Stacyann Campbell

This is so encouraging to me u see me myself had a stem cell transplant too as well a year ago .. feeling low at times Wanting to give up expecting it’s something that’s gonna work immediately but no as I go on day by day I realized I’m getting much stronger walking more faster and being more Encouraged to believe with god all things are possible

Crystal Brickell avatar

Crystal Brickell

WTG!! HAPPY "STEMMY" DAY , so proud of your accomplishments, woo hoo 🦋🧡😁🥳🎊🤗

PS: I have RRMS now for diagnosised 13 yrs in Aug 2024, but, have had it for about 10-15 yrs before it.

Brett Kelley avatar

Brett Kelley

Congratulations with your improvement, and thank you for your insight into stem cell treatments. My question is, (and pardon me if it was said in the article), what type of MS do you have? I ask because I have PPMS and close to losing my ability to walk due to spasticity and I am seriously considering aHSCT.


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