Bone Marrow Donors Give Hope to the Hopeless
In April of 2012, I requested a donor kit from the National Marrow Donor Program (aka Be the Match), swabbed my cheek with something that looked like a giant Q-Tip, put it in the provided container, and mailed it back- simple as that- no needles.
I can't say that I mailed my kit and then forgot about joining the registry because I didn't. You see, my dad had a life-saving bone marrow transplant and it was always in the back of my mind that I might one day get the call telling me that I would be able to donate my bone marrow to help save the life of someone else. I just didn't really think that call would ever come. But it did.
I'd just put my toddler down for a nap in the afternoon of an early March day when my phone rang and an unfamiliar number showed on the screen. I wasn't going to pick it up because I was exhausted and my child who never sleeps was sleeping, which meant that I had an opportunity to close my eyes for a little. Except that I didn't. I had a nagging feeling that I needed to find out who was calling and why, and so I answered. On the other end of the line was a representative from Be the Match.
Be the Match was calling to tell me that the DNA from the cheek swab that I mailed in was flagged as a match for a woman who has leukemia. The following week, I was sent for blood work and told I would hear back in two weeks to 60-days whether or not my bone marrow really was suitable for the patient. And so, I waited. For 35 days I waited. The call finally came on April 28th. After reviewing my medical history and blood work, the patient's doctors deemed me to be a primary match, which means that I'm the best possible matching donor for the patient.
The call came a Friday and by Saturday afternoon, Be the Match had a big information packet delivered to my door by FedEx. The next steps will involve a conference call with Be the Match to make sure I'm fully informed, and then more tests, including an intensive physical. The patient's doctors will have to analyze the results before making the final decision whether or not it'll be safe for her to receive a bone marrow transplant from me. If they give the green light, donation and transplant will happen very quickly.
I can't tell you how much I hope that things are able to come full circle and that I'm able to give this woman the gift of life, however, I'm aware that they might not. According to Be the Match,
1 in 40 registry members will be called for additional testing. Additional testing can be used to narrow the list of potential donors and determine the best possible match for a patient. 1 in 300 will be selected as the best possible donor for a patient. These potential donors will have an information session with their donor center representative to learn more about the donation process. Due to changes in the patient's condition, not all donors who are selected as the best match will donate. About 1 in 430 members will actually donate."
Even if I am able to donate, there's no guarantee that it will save the patient's life. My dad's first bone marrow transplant failed and when our family was told, we began to brace ourselves for the worst. My dad is one of the lucky ones who was matched with another donor who gave stem cells which were transplanted into my dad and breathed new life into him. The reality is that sometimes transplants can take, but the patient still dies, or they are plagued with awful side effects.
It sounds so tragic, doesn't it? A patient who is hanging to life by a thread receives news that they'll be getting a bone marrow transplant, which they do, and then it either fails or it takes. They either die or they survive. Some who have a successful transplant go on to live virtually "normal" lives while many spend the rest of their days dealing with complications as a result of chemo, radiation, and other treatments. But how many times have you heard stories of people on their death bed who say they wish they had a little more time? Time is something that many bone marrow transplants are able to give- both the patient and their family.
My dad is dealing with after-effects from his transplant which was in 2013 and some of those after-effects are major, but here's the thing- dad is alive. Dad's successful transplant means that he's lived long enough to see two more of his children get married and four more grandbabies be born. If it weren't for dad's bone marrow transplant, he wouldn't have lived to see those major life moments, and we wouldn't have had our dad around to share in our joy.
If you think that the number of people who actually need a bone marrow transplant to survive is slim, you need to read what Be the Match has to say,
Every three minutes, one person is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Every 10 minutes, someone dies from a blood cancer. That’s more than six people each hour, or 148 people each day."
Let that sink in. 148 people die each day from blood cancer. Many of these people die because there's no life-saving bone marrow for them and that's because people either aren't informed enough about the need, or they haven't joined the National Marrow Donor Program. Did you know that doctors request donors between the ages of 18 to 44 more than 95% of the time when they're looking for a suitable donor match? The reason is because donors between these ages have the greatest chance for a successful transplant, but this doesn't mean that if you're older you can't join. Donors are allowed to remain on the registry until their 61st birthday.
Want to learn more or request a free swab kit? Be the Match has an incredible amount of information and people available to answer any questions you might have.
Oh, and if you're curious whether or not your employer is required by law in the State of New York to allow you time to donate bone marrow, the answer is yes. New York State law mandates that an employer must give their employee 24 hours (or three full working days) off. Your employer also can't retaliate against you for requesting time off to donate bone marrow.