The first Emirati patient to undergo a bone marrow transplant in the UAE has highlighted another step forward for medical services in the country.
For decades, UAE nationals and residents requiring bone marrow transplants had to travel abroad for the procedures.
But they can now avail of services closer to home thanks to a new programme established last year by the Abu Dhabi Stem Cells Centre (ADSCC), in collaboration with Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC), which offers treatment for UAE patients suffering haematological and oncological illnesses.
It represents groundbreaking advancement for Emirati cancer patients, in particular, who are sent abroad for treatments.
Abdel Rahman Al Jaberi, 42, was diagnosed with leukaemia in October.
Mr Al Jaberi lost his father to lung cancer in 2012 and his mother is a breast cancer survivor, so hearing he too had cancer sounded like a death sentence.
The otherwise healthy father of three had gone to hospital after suffering intense pain in his lower back and chest.
Tests at SKMC showed he was in the early stages of blood cancer, which attacks the body's blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and lymphatic system.
“Hearing that I had cancer was a shock. I can’t tell the emotional toll it took on me. Hearing that you have cancer is in itself scary. It is indescribable,” said Mr Al Jaberi, who works for the government.
Mr Al Jaberi made sure that his mother and three girls were unaware of the diagnosis initially.
“I knew this would have been really difficult on my mother and I didn’t want her to relive the pain she went through with my father,” he said.
“I used to tell them that I had infections in the blood. When my hair started falling [out], I told my eldest daughter that I had shaved it all off at work. Only after I finished my treatment did I tell them,” he said.
Mr Al Jaberi underwent three courses of chemotherapy over three months at SKMC before his transplant at ADSCC.
“After my first chemotherapy course, doctors informed me that I may require a bone marrow [transplant]. I started reading up about it, but honestly had never heard of the ADSCC or knew that the service was available in the UAE.”
His family and friends were hesitant about him being treated in the UAE.
“When I saw the centre and met the doctor, I felt confident in having the transplant here. This was the hardest decision I had to make in my life, but has proven to be the best decision I have ever made,” he said.
“The majority were against me having it here, which is understandable, but getting treatment in a foreign country is not easy and, in addition to that, there is the quarantine period. They will also have to repeat all the tests from the beginning, so how much time would all this take from your life?
“When I saw all the cutting-edge technology and the facility here, I was amazed and I insisted that I get treated here.”
Since ADSCC established the programme in August, seven patients with different types of blood malignancies have been treated at the centre. Mr Al Jaberi, who is the first Emirati, is the eighth.
“I feel no pain and feel like I was reborn again,” he said, having recently been declared cancer-free.
There are currently more than 40 patients awaiting a bone marrow transplant.
Dr Fatema Al Kaabi, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Bone Marrow Transplant programme and lead physician during Mr Al Jaberi’s treatment, said: "This means we are following the highest international standards when it comes to treatment guidelines. It is a milestone into advanced cellular therapy."
ADSCC is an Abu Dhabi-based specialist healthcare centre founded in March 2019. It focuses on cell therapy and regenerative medicine, as well as delivering cutting-edge research on stem cells in the region.