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What's It Like: To donate bone marrow or blood stem cells

Bone marrow and blood stem cells donation procedure helps those diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: June 17, 2012

Why donate bone marrow or blood stem cells?

You might choose to donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells because you know someone who needs either for a transplant. For example, some people donate because a doctor thinks that person could be a match for a family member.

When you sign up to donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells, you join a national registry of people who have agreed they're willing to donate bone marrow. Whether you receive a call to donate depends on whether you're ever a match for a person who needs your bone marrow.

There are more than 10,000 people each year diagnosed with some form of life-threatening disease, such as leukemia or aplastic anemia.

Chemotherapy and radiation are used to treat cancer to kill off cancer cells that divide quicker than most kinds of health cells. But this treatment can damage bone marrow because bone marrow cells divide frequently.

This is where the transplant comes in. Sometimes the only treatment option or the best option for these patients is a bone-marrow transplant or peripheral blood stem cell transplantation.

These patients must receive the transplant from someone who is a genetic match. This can prove difficult for patients of racial minorities. Usually, a patient will check with their family first to see if they can find a match. However, 70 percent of patients can't find a match within their families.

At any moment, there are a constant 6,000 patients who are looking for a bone marrow or blood stem cell donation.

If you are between 18 and 60, you might qualify to donate bone marrow.

What happens when you donate bone marrow?

The way that people donate bone marrow has changed over the years. There are two main methods used to help a disease patient restore his or her stem cells, which have been destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

The more common method is peripheral blood stem cell collection. The other method involves taking marrow from a donor's pelvic bone. The recipient's doctor will choose which method is used.

Regardless of how you end up donating bone marrow, you must first register to donate bone marrow. During the registration process, a medical professional will swab your cheek to get your tissue type. You will fill out a form consenting to be placed on the bone marrow registry.

During the screening process, a medical professional will ask you various questions about your health. If you pass all the screening tests, you will be placed in the registry. You will be in this registry until you are 61, unless you request to be removed.

One out of 540 people in the registry in the U.S. will donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells to a patient. If you're between 18 and 44, you are 10 times more likely to be a marrow donor than other registry members. That's because some research suggests 18- to 44-year-old donors lead to more successful transplants.

If you're selected to donate, you will come in for some blood testing and a physical exam. This is to determine if you're healthy enough to donate.

If you are chosen to donate through peripheral blood stem cell collection, about four or five days before you donate, you will be given a series of injections of medication known as filgrastim. That medication causes your bones to make more blood stem cells and for more stem cells to be present in your blood stream.

When you come into donate, a medical professional will place needles in both of your arms. A machine will filter out the blood stem cells from the rest of your blood and give the rest of your blood back. Your blood-forming cells should return to normal levels within four to six weeks.

The process is similar to blood donation but will take longer. It takes between four to six hours depending on your size and the need of donation. The process is sometimes split into two days depending on how long it will take. You must sit still and are not allowed to get up and move around.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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