Nobody ever wants to be in a predicament where they actually need to accept donated bone marrow. But thousands upon thousands of people in the United States alone currently need bone marrow transplants to continue living. Becoming a bone marrow donor can save a life, whether it is for someone you know or someone completely anonymous. If you are considering becoming a bone marrow donor, the following information could ease your decision process considerably.
What exactly is bone marrow, and why is it needed for donation? Bone marrow is a spongy substance found within your bones. The most common sites for marrow to be taken from are the hip and sternum areas. These two areas, including the skull, ribs, and spine, contain stem cells which produce the body’s blood cells. Three different types of blood cells are formed from the immature cells that are found within marrow. Red blood cells (erythrocytes) carry oxygen to your body, white blood cells (leukocytes) help to fight infection, and platelets help your blood to clot. Patients with leukemia, certain types of anemia, and various forms of immune deficiency diseases benefit from bone marrow transplants. In most cases, the patients have defective or low blood cell counts, which can interfere with the normal blood cell production. These malfunctioning cells can accumulate in the bloodstream and invade other tissues of the body. More often than not, the only way to treat these types of cells is through high doses of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is commonly known to destroy or damage healthy functioning bone marrow. Transplants for these patients from donors most often prolong survival for most patients by increasing their disease-free periods, sometimes known as remission.
How is the procedure for bone marrow donation done? Traditionally, bone marrow was acquired through minor surgery. Marrow was drawn through a needle inserted into the bone, then the stem cells were collected from that marrow. Today, the most common practice for bone marrow donation includes filtering the stem cells through your blood. An IV is inserted into one arm, and draws out blood that goes into a machine. The blood stem cells are filtered out, and your own blood and plasma are returned to your body through an IV inserted into your other arm. This process is called apheresis. Depending on how many blood stem cells are needed, you could possibly undergo a few apheresis treatments, each lasting typically 2 to 4 hours.
What can be expected during a bone marrow donation procedure, and what are the risks? The apheresis process alone does not cause pain, other than the 2 IV insertions. Before your sessions, you are injected with a medication that encourages your bones to produce more stem cells within the marrow, called filgrastim (Neupogen). They are normally given once a day for 4 to 5 days before your first procedure. These injections could cause bone pain, common to what is felt during a bout with the flu. Once the injections are discontinued (whether you finished with the apheresis sessions or decide not to be a donor) the pain will go away. Common side effects to the injections include tingling around the lips, mouth, and fingers, headaches, fatigue, and muscle pain. Risks attached to bone marrow donations are fatigue, insomnia, flu-like symptoms, bone pain, muscle pain, loss of appetite, sweating, tingling, and headaches.
When a person needs to have a bone marrow donor, it is most common to search the immediate family for a match. In order for someone to be considered as a donor, the genetic makeup of their bone marrow has to be as close a match as possible to the recipient. This can be determined through special blood tests. If a recipient receives a bone marrow donation that isn’t an exact match, their body will pinpoint the marrow as a foreign object in the body and destroy it.
To become an anonymous donor, you can register with international bone marrow donor registries, such as the National Marrow Donor Program. These programs are most often utilized when a match for the recipient can’t be found within the family. They keep a detailed list of volunteers who are willing to donate their marrow to help save a life. Information about becoming a registered donor can be found here.