Be a Hero: Volunteer to donate bone marrow

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I think we all secretly hope for a chance to be heroic. In fact, I believe heroism is in our DNA. While we won’t all have the opportunity to carry someone out of a burning building or push someone out of the way of a speeding train, there are many ways for normal people to safely experience the rush of being a hero: one of those ways is by volunteering to donate bone marrow.

I know what you’re probably thinking right now . . . that you’ve heard donating bone marrow is extremely painful, right? That’s what I’d always heard, too. So imagine my surprise when I saw a photo of my friend Kerry, wearing a huge smile and a shirt with DKMS BONE MARROW DONOR printed on it, relaxing in a hospital bed with tubes in both arms. I was confused. I thought bone marrow could only be donated via a surgical procedure—and yes—a really painful surgical procedure.

As it turns out, although some donations are still obtained via surgery, thanks to medical advances, most are now done using a process called peripheral blood stem cell donation (PBSC).

What exactly is PBSC donation?

Kerry giving bone marrow

PBSC donation is a non-surgical procedure performed in an outpatient clinic. Each day for four or five days leading up to the procedure, the donor receives an injection of a bone marrow stimulant which increases the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream. On donation day, the donor’s blood is cycled through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells; the blood goes out through a needle in one arm and back in through a needle in the other arm, via a process called apheresis.

Who might need my bone marrow?

When blood cancer or another serious blood disease prevents bone marrow from producing healthy blood cells, a bone marrow transplant is often the best treatment option. Donor blood cells are injected into the recipient’s bloodstream, where they begin to grow and make healthy blood cells. When a patient needs a marrow transplant, family members are tested first to see if they match. But since 70% of patients don’t have a fully matched donor in their family, bone marrow registries are contacted in hopes of finding an unrelated donor match. Potential donors sign up with registries such as DKMS, Be the Match, and Gift of Life. Patients are most likely to match someone of the same ancestry. Registries are especially in need of donations from donors with these backgrounds: African American, Native American, Alaska native, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, and multiracial or mixed heritage.

Who can donate?

  • Doctors usually request donors who are in the age group of 18 to 44 years, because donations from younger people most often yield successful transplants. However, some registries accept potential donors up to age 60.
  • Donors are carefully prescreened to make sure they are healthy and the procedure will be safe for them.

What are my chances of being a match?

Approximately 1 in 430 people who register will be a match and will actually donate.

What can I expect if I donate? Are there any risks in donating?

  • The bone marrow stimulant injections may cause flu-like symptoms, headaches, nausea and/or muscle pain.
  • The extraction procedure usually takes between 2 and 4 hours, but may take up to 8 hours. Donors are made comfortable, sitting up in bed, watching TV or movies, and are encouraged to bring a friend along for company and to help them get home in case they feel weak. 10% of donors are asked to return for a second day of donation. 
  • Fewer than 1% of donors experience any complications. Because less than 5% of the donor’s marrow is needed to save a patient’s life, the donor’s immune system stays strong, with cells replenishing themselves in 4 to 6 weeks.
  • Donors usually return to work, school and most other activities within 1 to 7 days.

Finally, a testimonial from my friend Kerry, on her donation experience:

“Since I never had children, I saw bone marrow donation as my opportunity to give the gift of life. The most uncomfortable part was the first few days of the Neupogen [bone marrow stimulant] shots. I had a headache and my body ached as it began the process of creating my “super blood.” My muscles felt like I had run a marathon. But by day 3, I felt fine. After the donation I felt fine, too. I was actually disappointed! I had just spent 6 hours giving blood. I wanted to lay on the couch, watch TV, and nap. Instead, it was just like any other day. Not everyone will have it so easy, but even if I had felt horrible before, during, or after, I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Knowing that my donation potentially added years to someone else’s life is something I will never forget.”

For more information please visit these sites, which are also my sources:

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