July is African American Bone Marrow Awareness Month and it made me think about what led me to the bone marrow registry in the first place. Just after college an old high school friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. I hadn't spoken to him in a long time but I think being struck with a potentially deadly illness propelled him to reach out. We were friends, but like many do after high school we had lost touch. I remember visiting him in the hospital. He'd had surgery and was so drugged up and in so much pain he couldn't say more than a couple words to me. Fortunately, I'd never had much cause to visit a hospital but I didn't think it would affect me the way it did. That "hospital smell," the shiny white washed floors and the presence of suffering and illness made me weak in the knees. For a moment I actually thought I might pass out as I stood there and did what I could to be of comfort to him. He battled this illness for well over a year and even towards the end when I could visibly see the cancer snaking its way up his neck he was always hopeful that he could beat it. At some point in his illness he required a bone marrow transplant and my family got tested to see if any of us were a match. Nobody wants their life disrupted by surgery and having never even had an overnight stay in the hospital even as I was giving blood I was scared of what might happen if I matched. But my fears were not important. My friend is someone's son. He is an older brother. That is what was important. His life matters and seeing him in need and fighting for his life meant that I needed to do what I could to help even if it required anesthesia and a needle. No one in his family was a match and neither were any of us. Nobody was. Though he put up a valiant fight he succumbed to his illness. I will never ever forget him. He was so young and had so much left to do in this world. I am saddened to think about all that he and his family have missed out on.
Would I feel the same way if it was a stranger? I may not have that physical connection that comes with knowing the person in need but the circumstances are the same. The bone marrow donor must be a close match. When even family members may not be suitable donors it makes you realize that it’s really like searching for a needle in a haystack. If I am that one match that someone needs I'd have no choice but to help. When we got tested, our information was sent to the National Marrow Donor Program® Registry, as it was called then (now Be The Match Registry®). That meant that technically, I could get a call at any time regarding donation for someone in need. According to Be The Match Registry "On average, one in every 540 members of Be The Match Registry in the United states will go on to donate marrow to a patient." There are two ways to donate. One way is to extract bone marrow through a needle in the back of the donor’s pelvis. This is always done under anesthesia. The other more common method is called Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC). For five days the donor receives daily injections of a drug called filgrastim to increase the number of blood forming cells in their bloodstream prior to donation. Then, a needle is used to remove the blood and separate out the blood-forming cells. It is very similar to giving blood. You can read more information about the steps of donation here. Could I do it? Would I have the courage to undergo that procedure for someone that I've never met? The answer is yes. Getting that call means there is someone that might die without my help. I am living my life just fine; why not give someone else the same chance to do that too? The amount of discomfort and fear that I might go through is minimal in comparison to what a person facing a serious illness and possible death is dealing with. I also think about if the roles were reversed. I would want someone to step up and be willing to do the same for me.
It's especially important for ethnic minorities to be on the registry as a volunteer donor. Race is a factor in determining if a donor is suitable or not. Patients are more likely to be a match to someone of their own race and ethnicity. Many African Americans and others of diverse backgrounds have trouble finding a match, so racially and ethnically diverse donors are urgently needed. The pool of diverse potential donors needs to go up in order to increase the chance that patients will find the life-saving match they so desperately need.
I am just a regular woman who goes to work in an office every day. I am not in the military, a doctor, or a firefighter but I could still save a life and that is huge in my book. I’ve seen what a bone marrow transplant can do. Over 10 years ago my younger sister had a close childhood friend that was diagnosed with Leukemia. Not too long ago I stumbled upon her Facebook page which led me to her blog. That sick little girl I saw in a hospital bed is now a beautiful young woman who has gone to college and has a real talent for photography. The average time it takes for the bone marrow donor to resume normal activities is 1 to 7 days and in return she and her family have the chance to experience a lifetime of memories. While the idea of donating scares me, if I can make that possible for someone else and give them that second chance I will.
You can get more information at BeTheMatch.org.