A call for help
It takes a little part of you to make a person whole
A donor drive at Claflin University, a historically black university in South Carolina. (Photos coutesy of National Marrow Donor Program)
Want to be a lifesaver?
You needn’t sprint toward the nearest burning building or leap into raging waters. Instead, consider becoming a donor. Blood and blood products, and particularly bone marrow and organs are sorely needed by millions of children and adults dealing with life-threatening illnesses, blood loss or accidents.
A great need exists for African American and other minority donors. Having a good genetic match raises the odds of success for bone marrow transplants and sometimes even helps in blood transfusions.
Read on to learn why becoming a donor is so important, who can donate, how it’s done, whether it affects your health and how to sign up.
Bone marrow donation
Bone marrow transplants can be life-saving for people with serious illnesses, such as lymphoma and leukemia. Be The Match Registry, sponsored by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), connects doctors worldwide to donors who are good genetic matches. Race and ethnicity matter here. A similar heritage produces a closer match, which is better for patients, according to the NMDP. Currently, African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian and mixed background donors are in short supply.
Who can donate?
People between 18 and 60 can register as donors. Some health problems are not a barrier: for example, well-controlled asthma, diabetes or high blood pressure; mild to moderate arthritis; and even early stage cancers of the skin, cervix, breast and bladder. Expectant parents can donate umbilical cord blood, which contains blood-forming cells used for some transplants.
You can’t be a donor if donation would be too risky due to your weight, or if you’ve had certain serious ailments, such as autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis or lupus; AIDS or HIV; hepatitis B or C; and most cancers and forms of heart disease. Other health guidelines apply, too. Check with your doctor if you are considering donation and have questions.
Registering to be a donor should not be taken lightly. If you are found to be a match — that means a patient is depending on you to follow through with your commitment. The process is not as simple as blood donation and it is important to be aware of what it entails before making the decision to register and be tested.
A cheek swab collects material for tissue typing. If you join the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match Registry, you will be provided with a cheek cell swab registration kit. You can also visit www.dana-farber.org/how/donatebone/calendar.html to find a bone marrow drive near you. If you prove to be a match, the registry will contact you. You’ll be asked to do tests for further matching, then possibly for a donation made in one of two ways:
Stem cells and other key blood cells are collected from circulating blood. Peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donors take a drug called filgrastim for five days. Then a sterile needle placed in one arm pumps blood through tubing to a machine that separates out the stem cells. The remaining blood is returned to the body through a needle in the other arm.
Liquid marrow is removed from the pelvic bone through a hollow needle. Anesthesia is used so no pain is felt during the procedure.
Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Your body replaces the donated cells within four to six weeks. Common side effects of filgrastim include headaches, joint or muscle aches or tiredness for several days before collection and possibly a few days afterward. Most PBSC donors recover within two weeks. Surgical bone marrow donors may have lower back soreness for a few days or more. Most recover within three weeks.
What else should you consider?
Think carefully before registering and talk to family members and friends. If a match is made, the decision to donate remains your choice. However, backing out — especially at the last moment — can be health-threatening to the person who needs the marrow.