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May 9, 2014

The Truth About Donating Bone Marrow

We have all probably seen those medical dramas on TV. There is one particular episode that dramatizes the donation of bone marrow. In this episode, the character is not under any anesthesia, a giant needle is inserted into their spine and they are screaming from pain. I also had some misconceptions about donating bone marrow; I thought it was an extremely painful procedure where they had to drill a hole into your bones. I found out recently, however, that this is not what the procedure is like at all.

First, you should know why people get bone marrow transplants. Bone marrow is used primarily for patients that have been diagnosed with a blood cancer such as leukemia. This is the best way for a cancer patient to have the opportunity to be cancer-free. Also, matching a patient for bone marrow isn’t the same as matching a person for blood. When you donate blood, there are only four main blood types, and the O type is universal, so it can be donated to anyone. With bone marrow, however, there are thousands of different types. It is a much more precise matching process, and a lot of factors go into matching a person. For instance, a person of mixed race is most likely to have a donor of mixed race. Also, age is an important factor because the younger a person is, the less antibodies their marrow will have and therefore it is less likely the marrow will attack the person’s body. Finding the perfect match is important for these patients in order to ensure that their bodies don’t reject the healthy marrow.

Due to the precise matching process that is required, when you sign up to donate bone marrow, there is no guarantee that you will ever donate. They simply do a cheek swab to put your DNA in a giant database of potential donors. Then, you wait to see if you ever get a call to go through the actual donation process. There is, in fact, only about a one in 500 chance that a person on the registry will ever donate.

If a person is a match, then there are two different ways to donate marrow. The first way is to use a needle that is put into your pelvis to directly collect the marrow. A person that donates in this way, however, is always put under anesthesia and will feel little to no pain. I have a friend who donated this way, and he said the side effects were very minimal. He just felt a little bit of soreness in his legs for the next few days.

The second way to donate is through your blood. Doctors give you a special medicine that helps increase the number of blood stem cells in the blood stream. After a few days of these collecting in your blood, you will go through a similar process to donating blood. They insert a needle and tube that collects blood, then the blood is sent through a sorting machine that only removes those special cells the patient needs, and then the blood is put back into your blood stream. This process, although a little uncomfortable, isn’t that painful for the person donating. My friend who donated this way actually did a triathlon four days after donating.

Bone marrow donation is definitely not all that Hollywood makes it out to be. There is relatively little discomfort for the person donating, and the discomfort that they do experience is well worth saving the life of another person who is your perfect match.

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