I Donated Bone Marrow to a Stranger
Last month, I donated bone marrow to a stranger with a life-threatening disease. It has been an experience with pain, suspense, and hope. Ultimately, it’s about saving a life, and I hope that by sharing my story, others will be encouraged to register to be a donor and additional lives can be saved.
It started a couple of years ago when a mother of my son’s classmate was diagnosed with leukemia. Rachel was a young, beautiful mother of two, and I began following her journey online. Rachel’s blog was painfully honest, hysterically funny, and inspiring. She began a crusade to get everyone to donate blood and register to be a bone marrow donor. She did end up finding a match and getting a bone marrow transplant, which allowed her to spend additional, precious time with her family, but she ended up relapsing and sadly lost her battle.
I was so affected by her story. One day, there was a Be The Match registry drive at work. I had to register. It was really easy: they swabbed the inside of my cheek, I gave them contact information, and that was it.
Flash forward to this summer when I received an email from the Asian American Donor Program (AADP) (a Be The Match recruitment agency serving the multi-ethnic community) saying I was a potential match for someone. I learned that due to the critical need for ethnic minority participation, AADP is funded by Be The Match to encourage everyone, specifically the minority communities to register. According to the Be The Match site, a patient’s likelihood of finding a matching donor ranges from 66% for African-Americans/Blacks to 72% for Hispanics/Latinos to 73% for Asians/Pacific Islanders to 93% for Whites. A match is more likely when there is a similar ancestry. Therefore, it is critical for the donor registry to be diverse.
I was surprised to be contacted so (relatively) quickly, and I am not sure if my Hispanic background was a factor, but I did not hesitate to move forward with the next steps of the process. First, I answered a lengthy medical history questionnaire to make sure I was appropriate to donate – questions ranging from height and weight, to are you pregnant, to have you ever had sex with someone who had sex for money or drugs! The questionnaire was intended to initially screen that I was healthy enough to go through the procedure and that there wasn’t a risk of passing along any infectious diseases to the patient. Then, I went to a lab where they took many vials of blood for testing (including a pregnancy test).
The literature said the chances I would be a match were about 10%, so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t pan out. Then, I received the message that I was indeed a match and was asked if I would be willing to donate – either through PBSC (peripheral blood stem cells) or bone marrow donation. I read through the risks as did my husband. I didn’t hesitate -- I said I would do it.
Once you commit to donating, it is critical that you go through with it. First of all, you are providing hope to that patient and their loved ones. From a physical standpoint, the patient has to get prepped to receive the donation, which means an intense course of chemo and bringing the immune system down to zero, so that the donation won’t be rejected. It can be life-threatening if the donation doesn’t come through at this point.
There are two different procedures that are used: PBSC or bone marrow. The patient’s doctor determines the appropriate course of treatment. PBSC consists of receiving injections for a few days to increase the number of blood stem cells in the bloodstream and then 1-2 several-hour procedures (apheresis) of donating blood from one arm, which then goes through a machine to extract the blood-forming cells, and then the blood is returned in the other arm. The procedure I was asked to do was bone marrow donation, which is a surgical procedure where a needle is inserted through the lower back into the pelvic bone to extract the bone marrow.
Once I agreed to be a donor, I went through an information session where a donor representative walked me through the process. I signed consent forms. I had a physical exam, including more blood work, a chest x-ray, an EKG, and they checked my veins (more important for the PBSC procedure). I went to American Red Cross to donate a pint of blood to store for the procedure, which is called autologous blood donation. And I took one more pregnancy test.