Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bone marrow transplants - would you consider being a donor?

This is a reprint of a blog post from 2008, but the topic is as timely now as it was three years ago.

Many people donate blood. Many people have signed organ donor cards. But how many people are registered to be able to donate bone marrow?

Bone marrow donation has a lot of misconceptions but if everyone who gave blood - and those who didn't - would register for bone marrow donation, the number of lives that could be saved would be astronomical.

According to the Canadian Blood Services, and keep in mind that the US is not that different, "About 1,500 Canadians have received transplants through the Canadian Blood Services Registry. However, even with millions of donors on registries worldwide, a perfect bone marrow match isn’t always available."

First, what is bone marrow and why is it so darned important?

Bone marrow is the soft tissue that is found inside our bones; it's the spongy tissue in the breast bone, ribs, hips, pelvis, skull and spine. The role of bone marrow is to make blood cells - white blood cells to fight infection, red blood cells to carry nutrients from the lungs to the body tissues, and platelets that allow the blood to clot.

People with diseases that affect the bone marrow die of infection or inability for their blood to clot. The most commonly known disease that requires bone marrow transplant is leukemia, although there are many more.

What is involved in being a donor?

Not too much initially, really. First, you need to register and your local blood collection agency needs to know what genetic make-up you have. So, that means providing a swab from inside your mouth or a vial of blood for testing.

After this has been tested, you are entered into the bone marrow data base. Now - you may never ever be called - or you might. If your marrow is found to be a match to someone in need, anywhere, you will be called and asked if you still want to donate. This is a critical moment - if you register to donate, you just may be called.

Waiting for a donor to be found is tough. A friend of mine waited for a donor. One was found and she was so cautiously optimistic. Something happened, however, and the donor backed out. My friend was devastated - as were we. Finally, a donor was found, but I can't imagine what must have been going through her mind while she waited for it to actually happen.

How is the bone marrow taken from you and given to the recipient?

Bone marrow donation is typically done as day surgery although you could be kept in the hospital for a day or two. There's no doubt that there  is some discomfort involved. You will feel soreness in the hip area for a few days after the procedure, but it isn't unbearable.

You would receive either a general anesthetic or a spinal before the procedure is done. The marrow is removed from the large bones of your pelvis using a needle. Afterwards, if you need, usually over-the-counter medications will relieve any pain. The marrow is then processed and the recipient gets it through an IV.

Are there any risks when donating?

Donating marrow is a medical procedure and no medical procedure can guarantee that there are no risks. However, that being said, considering the number of bone marrow donations done, it's been found that it is a very safe procedure. The risks do include a reaction to the anesthetic and infection where the needle was injected. Rarely, there may be some tissue damage.

So, we're back to the question: Would you consider becoming a bone marrow donor?