I was a bone marrow donor in 1996.

When I was 16, a representative from the Red Cross came to our school to tell us the rules for blood donation had recently been changed. With parents' permission you could donate blood. That was easy. And if you were 'big' enough, then it would be a full donation - for the genteeler of students (those under 55kg) it would be a partial donation. That was even easier.

For years I was giving blood four times a year or so. One of those visit in 1995 I went through the normal rigmarole, and was waiting for the third stage of the procedure to be called into the room to actually give blood. While waiting I see the sign:

Do you want to become a bone marrow donor?
Ask at reception for details before filling out the questionnaire.

So I had to interrupt the process to go back to the reception and tell them I was interested, but I had not seen the sign until I had nearly got to the final stage. I waited again.

A woman came down from ABMDR and we talked for a bit. She seemed excited. It was nice. But enough GTKY stuff - here's the information I got from that discussion:-

  • During this blood donation they would take an extra 60mL (or was it 80) of blood. This was to get the information about my blood (type and other things) so that I could be entered on their database.
  • Their database is part of a worldwide network. If someone overseas required bone marrow, and mine matched, then that information would be available to them. If you are not in Australia, there will still be a bone marrow donor registry near you.
  • The chances were one in a thousand of being a match with someone who needed bone marrow and could not find a match amongst their relatives.
  • Apart from the extra blood in this donation, I would not be required to do anything else unless I was notified I was a match. This could be ten years down the track, and if things had changed, I was under no obligation.

I gave an extra vial of blood and then... nothing.

For a year.

Within the year I had nearly forgotten I had signed up for it. But I got the call. I was surprised, my circumstances had changed, but not in regard to whether I would do this.

I matched six out of six things with the patient who had leukaemia. (I don't know what the things were, but I do now, thanks to rootbeer277.) They would be looking for other donors, in case something happened to me or they could find more suitable donor.

They prefer males. They prefer people who have not been pregnant. They prefer younger (and many countries have an upper age limit). They prefer people with same same blood type. They prefer people in the same city, or failing that, the same country. They will attempt a transplant with four or five matches, but they prefer six. There are other things, there's a disease which humans get which has no symptoms except that you build up antibodies to it; they prefer people who have not had this disease.

There were a lot of phone calls and discussions. About a week before I went into hospital to have the bone marrow harvested, the recipient underwent radiation killing all her bone marrow. She was vulnerable at this moment and was kept in an oxygen tent with no contact with any potential infections. Without bone marrow, she had no immune system. At this point, although there were no legal ramifications, if I changed my mind during this week then I had pretty much killed the recipient. Before they began this part of the procedure, they called me and I assured them that I would not back out.

A couple of days before I went to hospital, I donated blood for myself. Just in case. The silly thing about this is that: if the blood was contaminated (with AIDS or the like) then they could not give it to me, even though it was my blood; and when I didn't use the blood it had to be thrown out. Oh well, easy come, easy go.

The recipient was in a different hospital than me. This was standard procedure. They did not want any accidental meetings between us. They have a twelve month cooling off period before they allow any contact between donor and recipient, and even then it is not encouraged, but it is facilitated. This seems fair enough to me.

When I went to hospital it felt a little weird. I was perfectly healthy, and a little bored. I was in the blood ward. So I was surrounded by a lot of sick people. In one of our discussions the other patients unanimously thanked me - on behalf of the bone marrow recipient, but also on behalf of themselves and everyone else who received blood. In another discussion, where I was feeling a little nervous, they reminded me that the recipient was going through an infinitely worse experience.

I couldn't fault that reasoning.

Under a general anaesthetic they removed 375mL of bone marrow from my hip bone. I was left with two small needle holes on either side of my back. There was no drilling, but the needles where really big, or so I was told. I never saw them. I was offered all the morphine I wanted - but I was not in pain. The next day, I went home.

For the next three days, and I had permission to take it easy, when I stood up after sitting for a while there would be a smart in my back, but that was the only pain I felt. After these three days, I had all my bone marrow back, and it was like nothing had happened to me, physically. I got to keep that warm fuzzy feeling.

On the other hand, the recipient, who had a textbook recovery, went through weeks of agony as my bone marrow attacked her body for being foreign. But eventually, it started making blood cells for her, and as far as I know, they're still living happily ever after.

http://www.abmdr.org.au/ (Last visited: 4 Nov 2003)
http://www.giveblood.redcross.org.au/ (Last visited: 4 Nov 2003)

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