Exactly What It’s Like to Donate Bone Marrow — and Why More African-American Donors Are Needed, STAT

Abby West first decided to become a bone marrow donor when she was a young journalist covering a bone marrow drive. Little did she know, nearly two decades later she’d actually be called upon to try to help save someone’s life.

“The newspaper I had joined had a reporter who had passed away of sickle cell anemia, and I had become aware of the need for African-Americans to join the registry” West, who is a senior editor at Yahoo Celebrity, tells Yahoo of her decision to initially sign up with the National Marrow Donor Program. “I was covering a bone marrow drive for African-Americans and it seemed like the right thing to do.” West says she simply got her cheek swabbed — which takes a sample of cells that doctors then use to compare specific protein markers with those of patients who need a bone marrow transplant — and then went about her life.

But in June 2014 — 17 years later — she received an email from Be the Match, a registry of the National Marrow Donation Program, saying that her bone marrow was a potential match with someone in need. She called the organization to pursue it. “You get a sense of urgency, need, and what is expected of you,” she says. To make sure she was a healthy donor, she needed to fill out forms and, once it was determined that she met all of the criteria, she moved on to a physical health examination.

(Photo: Courtesy of Abby West)

(Photo: Courtesy of Abby West)

(Photo: Courtesy of Abby West)

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West says she underwent seven weeks of blood testing and prep work before she donated. In the process, the decision was made whether she would do a surgical bone marrow donation, in which a person is put under general or local anesthesia and liquid marrow is taken from the back of the pelvic bone, or a non-surgical peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) harvest in which blood is drawn from one arm into a machine, where it is spun and the stem cells are extracted. The remaining blood is then returned to the person’s body in the other arm. West chose the latter option, and started receiving Neupogen shots that increased her body’s production of stem cells. “It puts your stem cells on overdrive,” she explains.

West says the message was always clear from Be the Match: It was her body and she could change her mind at any point. However, she says, they request that if you’re going to change your mind, you do so before you begin the shots. Here’s why: At this point, the patient she would be donating to was starting chemotherapy in anticipation of receiving her stem cells. “You get the sense that someone’s life is in the balance and there’s no turning back—only moving forward,” she says. “You need to understand the commitment to potentially saving someone’s life.”

West says the shots weren’t painful, but she did experience some flu-like symptoms. “You feel a little achy,” she says. “Your body is becoming laden with stem cells. It’s uncomfortable, but not painful.” A nurse came to West’s office to give her the shots, but donors can also go to a clinic to receive them or do them on their own. “They try to make it as seamless and painless as possible,” she says, noting that they made her feel more tired than usual. “I wasn’t on my gym grind that week,” she says.

The day of the donation, West reported to a blood donation center by 7 a.m., along with a friend to keep her company, and sat in a chair for about eight hours while her blood was drawn and deposited back into her body. “When you have to go to the bathroom, you just stop, unhook, go the bathroom, and hook back up again,” she says. “It wasn’t a hardship — I can’t complain about it. It was eight hours of sitting and talking.” West says the process was “mildly uncomfortable” but she knew that in about 48 hours, someone was going to have a life-saving operation. Afterwards, she felt tired and went to sleep for a little while. “I did it on Friday and was back at work on Monday, but I would have been fine to go to work the next day,” she says.

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Stem cells are regenerative, and there is no long-term harm to the donor, Muzzafar Qazilbash, MD, professor of Stem Cell Transplantation at University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains to Yahoo Beauty.

While there is a need for people of all races and ethnicities to donate bone marrow, there is especially a need among African-Americans, Qazilbash says. African-Americans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population and only about 25 to 30 percent of people who can potentially benefit from a bone marrow transplant have a perfectly matched sibling donor available, he says. The rest of the patients have to rely on finding matched, unrelated donors from the National Marrow Donor Program. “However, the overwhelming majority of approximately 25 million volunteer donors registered with NMDP are people of Western and Northern European origins, and as a result it is very hard to find matched, unrelated donors for African-American patients,” he says. “Encouraging more people of African ancestry will increase the possibility of finding unrelated donors for African-American patients, which can be life saving.”

Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty that, while some ethnicities have very little genetic variability, there is a lot of genetic variability within the African-American population, making the probability of having two genetically similar people less likely. “Then you bring up the issue of how few African-American donors there are, and there is difficulty finding an adequate donor,” he says.

Donor stem cells can be used to treat life-threatening conditions such as leukemia and lymphoma, as well as sickle cell anemia, Jacoub says. They can also help people with bone marrow failure syndromes like aplastic anemia, a condition in which a person’s body stops producing new blood cells, as well as help treat children born with severe immune system deficiencies, Qazilbash says.

West never found out more information about the person she donated to, other than the fact that the patient was a man. She also doesn’t know how he fared after the donation, but learned that he struggled with graft-verses-host disease, a complication that can occur after a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. “It’s fairly common for people to have it and move forward, but I’ve never found out how he ultimately ended up,” she says.

West was so moved by her experience that she eventually joined the board of Be the Match and now urges others to become bone marrow donors as well. “You always think about what you would want someone to do for you or your family member,” she says, noting that she’s still on the registry and would donate again, if needed.

Of course, blood and needles are involved, which can scare some people off, but West says it’s worth it in the end: “In order to do something heroic, you have to overcome some discomfort and some trepidations.”

To find out more about becoming a bone marrow donor, please visit BeTheMatch.org.

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