Join "Be A Match" and You Could Save A Life

By Nancy Wurtzel

While it’s doubtful I’ll ever rescue someone from a burning building, I may have the opportunity to save a life.  Since April 2007, I’ve been listed as a possible donor on the national registry for Be The Match®.  My chances of being matched are about one in 500, not fantastic odds, but certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

I first learned of the nonprofit Be The Match about nine years ago when I read a magazine article about a man who had donated his bone marrow and found the experience to be incredibly positive.

Intrigued, I decided to investigate.

My research revealed that each year about 10,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, like leukemia or lymphoma, which require a bone marrow or cord blood transplants.  I learned marrow lives in major bones in the body and stem cells contained in marrow are the building blocks of blood.  A transplant is often the only pathway for cure.

Surprisingly, about 70 percent do not have a donor match within their family, which is why the National Marrow Donor Program® (NMDP) launched Be The Match in 1987.

Be The Match manages the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world, comprising 12.5 million potential donors and over 200,000 umbilical cord units.  In 25 years, it has facilitated more than 55,000 transplants.  The ideal donor is between the ages of 18 and 44.  While I was already over that age, Be The Match does allow older donors on its registry, and if matched they have the same opportunity to donate as younger adults.

As I read more about marrow donation and spoke with Be The Match representatives by phone, I learned the donation process has changed in recent years.

Most marrow donations are now accomplished through a nonsurgical procedure, called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC), usually at a blood center or outpatient hospital setting.   The donation procedure, called apheresis, filters stem cells directly from the donor’s blood.  PBSC takes about 20-30 hours over a period of a month to six weeks.  The process is akin to donating blood, although donors must receive some pre-donation injections and the blood is returned to the body after stem cells are harvested.

While 70 percent of marrow donations are through PBSC, the remaining 30 percent of donors undergo direct marrow donation, in which bone marrow is extracted from the back of the pelvic bone under general anesthetic.

Both procedures do come with a small amount of risk, and there is a recuperation period following donation, which depends upon the procedure and the individual.  If selected, donors do not get to choose which procedure to undergo, but they can always opt not to donate.

Be The Match also has a third option for women of child-bearing years.  It is the donation of a baby’s umbilical cord, following a birth.  The cord is a rich source of both bone marrow and blood stem cells, and it is primarily used to save the lives of very young patients.

Since I wouldn’t be having any more children, this third option wasn’t a possibility for me.  However, I was still young enough to donate via PBSC or direct marrow donation.

During my research, I’d made list of questions.  The most pressing centered on my wellbeing, which I think is a natural concern.  Would the process be painful?  Could donation endanger my health?  Are there long-term consequences from a marrow donation?

There was no getting around that donation involves some discomfort and inconvenience, but did the chance to save a life outweigh those negatives?

For me, the answer was ‘yes.’

The next step was to complete my online registration.  After that, Be The Match sent me a kit which I used to collect some cells from the inside of my check.  I returned the kit and paid a registration fee, a requirement for those over the age of 45. Within weeks, I was part of the registry.

Then, I waited.

It’s been almost eight years.  There is still the chance I might be matched with someone, but time isn’t on my side.  In May 2016, I’ll turn 61, and that means I’ll no longer be eligible to stay on the registry.  The age cut-off is for the protection of those donating because as one ages the risks surrounding donation increase.  Yes, it is a bummer, but I can’t argue with safety and I can’t turn back the clock.

In the meantime, I’m glad I chose to join the registry and still hopeful I’ll get the phone call before my 61st birthday.  It would be an incredible opportunity to help save a life.

Nancy Wurtzel, a frequent contributor to ThirdAge, is the editor of the blog . 

you may also like

Recipes We