Friday, July 23, 2010

The Experience of Becoming A Bone Marrow Donor

I like to think that I surround myself with do-gooder types, but even I was surprised by the fact that I have two friends, Jason and Rebecca, who got their calls from the Gift of Life and became bone marrow donors in the past few years. Their stories are beautifully told in their own voices below and provide all of us with a tool for those who need an answer to the question, "what does it mean to become a bone marrow donor?" Many thanks to Jason and Rebecca for sharing with us.

Jason's Story:
The prospect of donating bone marrow can be a little nerve wracking, but, speaking has someone who a) has given b) has a very low pain-threshold and c) is absolutely terrified of needles, I can tell you need not worry. Swabbing your cheek is a very easy step (that you all should absolutely take!) that is the first step in the process. To find a match, all they need is a little DNA and a few cells from your cheeks will do the trick. When you go to a drive, you'll fill out a quick and easy form, take a glorified Q-Tip and swab the inside of your cheek. Then, bing bang boom, you're in the registry.

But, by this point you know that already, so I want to give you an idea of what the rest of the process is like. Should you be a potential match, you will get a phone call from Gift of Life. They talk with you about the process, about the tests you will take, and to answer any questions you might have. They even assign you a specific person to work with throughout the process. In the first round, they contact a large number of potential matches, casting a wide net, hoping that they will be able to find as close to a perfect match as possible. To do that, they take a few tubes of blood and run their hematology magic on it.

Then, a couple of weeks or a few months later, if you are the match you get the next call. At this point, you learn about the donation process. There are more tests to run, including a physical, an EKG, x-rays, and some more blood tests.Now is when we get to the good stuff. There are two methods for donating. The process they will use depends on what the recipients doctor deems would be the best way to receive and use the donation. Before receiving the donation, the recipient undergoes aggressive chemotherapy. The recipient’s immune system is totally wiped out so the marrow you donate will replace that clean slate. Clearly, timing here is important, but Gift of Life was able to work with my final exam schedule and my location, to arrange the procedure.

Now on to the two options. The first, as I understood it, works this way: once a day for 4 days before you donate, you get injected with a growth factor causing you to create more white blood cells which, on the day of the donation, they will extract. Essentially, they hook you up to a machine that filters all of your blood and takes out the extra white blood cells. Those white blood cells will be given to the recipient to reboot their immune system.

The other option, which they used in my case, is straight-up bone marrow extraction. I was given general anesthesia and went to the OR. In order to get the marrow out they essentially stuck a big ol’ needle into my lower back and took the marrow right out of the bones. I spent a few hours in recovery and they sent me on my way with some strong painkillers.

The question everyone asked was “how bad did it hurt?!” And, frankly, it wasn’t that bad. The day I donated, I flew home (I was a senior in college and was going home for winter break). More than anything over the next few weeks I was sore. There wasn’t a great deal of pain (I switched over to extra strength Tylenol pretty quickly), but moving from standing to sitting or sitting to lying down took some effort. I recovered well and two weeks later took a 3-hour car trip and sleep on the floor at a friend’s house for New Years. I was told to avoid contact sports for a month, but other than that, I didn’t have any other significant restrictions.There are, of course, more details about the before, during, and after that I am happy to share (either in comments, or you can email me).

If you haven’t yet joined the National Bone Marrow Registry, I strongly urge you to do so. Being lucky enough to be selected as a donor was far and away the most meaningful and important thing I have ever done, and, God willing, you will be fortunate enough to have that experience as well. - Jason Fenster

Rebecca's Story:
There’s a little girl somewhere in this world who is cancer-free and alive because when someone asked if I wanted to join the bone marrow registry, I said “yes.”

Thinking about signing up for the registry? Do it! Swab your check, and if you’re blessed enough to be a match at some unexpected point down the road, jump in and give that little piece of yourself without worry. Because the physical process is far less of an “ordeal” than you’d expect and the rewards – both potential and guaranteed – are greater that you could ever imagine.

I loved donating. It was one of the most important events in my life and high among the things I’m most proud of. It was exciting and humbling and BIG– and it didn’t hurt a bit! Truly! The worst part was having blood drawn for the tests to confirm I was a match, and even that was mostly because I had to contend with Midtown traffic to get to the lab. Over a year later, I still become energized just talking about it. With so little inconvenience to myself, I saved someone's life. I'm still awed and grateful that I can say those words.So sign up! It's so little to give and so very much to gain. - Rebecca Chaikin

And now is the perfect time to swab because Good Morning America is temporarily covering the cost of new registrants in an effort to find a match for a little girl who plays young Nala in the Lion King on broadway. Let me be the third voice in this post to say: get swabbed!


Suburban Sweetheart said...

So glad to read these. Lovely people, those two. <3

Becky Froman said...

Your friends' stories are great Elissa! And, the majority of donoor stories I've heard sound more like Rebecca's then Jason' is much more common to just need stem cells through a blood filter process, and not to actually need to go in via anasthesia, needles, and the OR. Easy peesy.
I hope one day I get the opportunity. And I'm so grateful to all those amazing people out there who are willing to do this to fight cancer and help others. You are right Elissa, you are surrounded by wonderful people. So lucky to be part of your crew.
heart, your sister