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The Bone Marrow Chronicles?

Posted Aug 12 2009 10:22pm
In 2004, I wandered into my local blood bank in Chicago and told them that I wanted to donate bone marrow. The nice lady explained that I can give a small blood sample that they’d analyze for various characteristics and antigens. The results of their analysis would be entered into a national database, and if a needy person’s doctor checks the database and finds a match, they’d contact me.

She explained that while this is a good system, finding an antigen match is very rare, and I would likely hear nothing else from them. She asked me to advise them if I moved, so they would have current contact information if they needed me.

I walked out of the office 30 minutes later sure that I’d never hear a thing.

Somehow, this rather ungratifying experience became the germ in my brain that led me to donate a kidney in 2007. You can read all about that in earlier blog entries below.

In March 2009, I moved to Hawaii. I took the time to change my addresses with countless magazine subscriptions and the other vendors in my life. Updating my info with the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry never even crossed my mind.

On Sunday March 9, 2009 during my weekly call with my dad in Virginia, my old man mentioned that a lady from the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry was trying to reach me. They couldn’t find me, but they found my father.

A few phone calls later I learned that there was a 13 year old boy (herein referred to as “The Boy”) somewhere in America who was dying of leukemia. His blood chemistry was entered into the Registry, and my antigen profile came up as a preliminary match. They asked me if I was willing to proceed with testing, and I told them that I was happy to help.

Things move fast in the bone marrow donation world. Time is of the essence, and lives are in the balance. Earlier today (3/11/2009), I went into the local hospital in Honolulu to give blood for further testing. My vials of blood are now on a plane to Minneapolis to be further compared to The Boy’s needs. If I’m a match, I will be able to donate bone marrow here in Hawaii and “the product” (their term) is flown to The Boy for transplantation. Unlike kidneys, it’s not vital that I be nearby. The couriers do the legwork.

It is possible that several people from the registry may have been preliminarily identified as potential matches for the boy. In that case, the lab in Minneapolis will chose the best candidate to move forward.

Now that it’s a competition, I hope I get picked (nuts, huh?).

If I’m the only candidate, I’ll likely have word within a week. If there are multiple candidates, it could take longer as the lab needs all of us to give our samples before the lucky winner is chosen. Sometimes, it takes up to 90 days for all of the candidates to get their shit together and the lab to complete the testing. I hope, for the sake of The Boy, that my blood chemistry cohorts are all fast responders.

Here are the questions you likely are asking

What Does The Procedure Entail?

I stole this from
Marrow donation is a surgical procedure that takes place in an operating room.

Anesthesia: You will be given anesthesia to block the pain during the marrow donation. If general anesthesia is used, you will be unconscious during the donation. If you receive regional anesthesia (either spinal or epidural), medication will block sensation in the affected area, but you will remain aware of your surroundings. General anesthesia is used for about 75% of marrow donors.

Donation: During the marrow donation, you will be lying on your stomach. While the donation varies slightly from hospital to hospital, generally, the doctors make several (typically one to four) small incisions through the skin over the back of the pelvic bones. The incisions are less than one-fourth inch long and do not require stitches. The doctors will insert a special hollow needle through these incisions over the rear of the pelvic bone. A syringe is attached to the needle to draw out the marrow.

Recovery: Most donors go home the same day or the next morning.


Do You Get to Know Your Recipient?

Not at first. I have the option to receive regular updates regarding The Boy’s health post-transplant. After one year, if both parties consent, the Registry will provide us with each other’s contact information and we can be BFFs forever.

I don’t really see the upside of such a relationship with a teenage boy and his grateful family, so I expect I’ll just say a prayer for the boy and move on with my life. I reserve the right to change my mind, though.


Does it Hurt?

Marrow donation is done under general or regional anesthesia so the donor experiences no pain during the collection procedure.
Discomfort and side effects vary from person to person. Most marrow donors experience some side effects after donation. Common side effects of marrow donation include
• Lower back pain
• Fatigue
• Stiffness when walking
• Bleeding at the collection site

Some donors said the experience was more painful than they expected; others said it was less painful. Some donors describe the pain as similar to achy hip bones or falling on their buttocks. Others say it feels more like a strained muscle in the back. The ache may last a few days to several weeks.

My guess is that it will hurt less than my kidney surgery and for less time. That said, I’m way more nervous about the bone marrow thing than I was for the kidney thing. I reckon that’s because the idea of drilling into my hip bone is something I can conceptualize right now more than I could ever wrap my head around removal of my spare kidney. In other words, I’m closer to my hip than I ever was to my kidney. This is the cause of my anxiety. Does that make sense?


How Common is This?

The nice ladies at the Hawaii Bone Marrow Donor Registry told me that every month about 30 people submit to secondary testing like I just did. However, only about one of those people per month ever ends up donating. That is due two factors: candidates not being the best match and people chickening out from participation in the procedure (Cowards, I say). I told the ladies that I’d be happy to help them with any P.R. push they wanted to do to increase the number of Hawaiians in the Registry.


What’s next?

Well, I should hear something in the next 7 to 90 days. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, go to and learn how to get on the Registry in your town. Maybe you’ll get to save a kid’s life.


UPDATE 10/30/2009
I just heard from the Hawaii Bone Marrow ladies, and I was not selected to save The Kid. I came in second place. If the lucky winner flakes out, then I'm up to bat. Oh well. At least I tried.
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