During the COVID-19 pandemic, couriers from the National Marrow Donor Program® (NMDP)/Be The Match® have been a key link in the cell therapy supply chain. They’ve delivered thousands of time-sensitive therapies to waiting patients around the world.
Kelley Steffens became an NMDP/Be The Match courier during COVID-19. Here she shares the story of her first courier trip, the challenges she faced and the emotions she felt knowing a patient’s second chance at life was in her hands.
It was 4 p.m. A fact I knew because I kept anxiously checking the
time. I had one hour to deliver my precious cargo – a cooler filled with cryopreserved blood stem cells from a volunteer donor – to the airport and make my flight destined for the waiting patient’s transplant center.
Someone’s second chance at life was dependent on my timely arrival. The cells I was about to pick up would be used to treat a patient in need of a life-saving blood stem cell transplant. That was assuming no travel or flight disruptions, which have been extremely common during the global coronavirus pandemic.
That morning, I’d called ahead to determine the best time to pick up the cells post-collection. Timing of cell pick up is dependent on how long it takes to collect the cells from the blood stem cell donor.
In this case, the collection wasn’t supposed to be completed until the afternoon, which would have left me with only one hour to make my flight. There were no other flights available that day, and the cells would deteriorate over time. Missing this flight would mean potentially delaying the patient’s much-needed therapy.
I knew that my role in accompanying this precious cargo was to serve as the on-the-ground decision-maker and protector. When someone’s life is in your hands, literally, it is critical to mitigate any potential risk, including travel time to the airport. Our Cell Therapy Supply Chain Managers and Logistics Managers were with me every step of the way. Fortunately, they were able to work with the apheresis center to arrange an earlier pick-up.
Answering the call to help
I had volunteered for this job because our company’s volunteer cell therapy couriers were in short supply. I work for the NMDP/Be The Match, which operates Be The Match BioTherapies®. Our mission as an organization is to save lives through cellular therapy.
On March 1, we had 445 willing and able couriers, but by April 13, as the coronavirus pandemic spread, that number had dropped to 85. As our company continued to amplify our safety protocols to protect all of our stakeholders, our couriers, understandably, were increasingly unable to travel. So, it was time for our staff members to step outside the 9-5 and support our mission on the ground floor.
As an able-bodied, young person with no preexisting conditions that would put me at a higher risk for COVID-19, I counted myself lucky during this pandemic and was eager to do what I could to make a difference for our patients. When the call for volunteers went out, I signed up right away.
Training to troubleshoot in the moment
While the role of a cell therapy courier is, in essence, straightforward, there are a lot of rules to learn. Our role is to serve as the human mind accompanying the life-saving product, able to make decisions and troubleshoot in real-time if needed.
Under normal circumstances, couriers undergo a rigorous eight-hour, in-person training, where they learn how to deal with challenges, such as canceled flights, and how to communicate with cell collection centers. The first and overriding lesson: Don’t ever, ever let the bag of cells out of your sight. Given the urgent need for volunteer couriers, my training was boiled down to four hours of virtual content.
In addition to helping me prepare for my upcoming trip, that training reminded me how much infrastructure – and people power – it takes to connect patients with their potentially life-saving cell therapies in ordinary times, much less during a pandemic.
Our logistics team alone clocked more than 2,000 overtime hours in the first 37 days of the pandemic. The logistics team is responsible for helping coordinate flights, cell pickup and hotel bookings to ensure cells always make it to their destination. “Most of our challenges in logistics are just trying to make sure that everything is where we say it is,” one of my logistics colleagues described to me.
In a normal scenario, that means consistent monitoring of flight itineraries and being on-call to make changes on short notice. With flights and hotels both severely limited during the pandemic, the team was working around the clock. But it’s all worth it. Largely due to those contributions, the NMDP/Be The Match and Be The Match BioTherapies have successfully delivered nearly 100% of our planned allogeneic and autologous cell therapy products on time.
Preparing for cell transport and delivery
Shortly after my training, I signed on to a trip and my logistics colleagues built out an itinerary: Two days, two planes, one donor cell delivery. I was ready to go.
On a standard courier trip, it’s not unheard of for the itinerary to change, but situations like the COVID pandemic take it to a whole new level. During the pandemic, our Cell Therapy Supply Chain Managers and logistics team managed one itinerary for an international product transport that changed over 20 times during the trip due to border entry restrictions and flight cancellations.
I was fortunate that overall, my trip went smoothly. Still, I had to remind myself to stay cool numerous times – even after I arrived at the airport.
As I made my way through the security line, still nervous about making my flight, I remembered my training and knew the next step would be crucial. I stopped a Transportation Security Administration agent to let them know I was carrying precious material that couldn’t be put through the scanner and needed a hand inspection. The agent looked confused and I tried not to panic. Fortunately, another agent looked over and said, “Is that bone marrow?”
Finally, I was through security. I relaxed a bit on the ride to my destination, though I knew the most important part of the trip was still to come.
Dropping off the cells at their destination is a moment I’ll never forget. It intensified my appreciation for the work our organization does and brought a spark of hope within the hopelessness that’s permeated many of our lives during the pandemic. Most importantly, it will make a difference for a patient who otherwise would be unable to receive cell therapy treatment.
I don’t know the name of the donor who sacrificed their time and cells to make this therapy possible, or the patient who will benefit, but I am in awe of them both.
Eventually, this pandemic will end, and our courier numbers will begin to rise again. Until then, I’m looking forward to my next trip.
Supply chain support during COVID-19 and beyond
Delivering time-sensitive therapies to patients is complex, even without the obstacles COVID-19 presents. Working with an experienced team can help.