Being a Match: My Stem Cell Donation Story

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August 10th, 2020. This was when I got the call that would change my life.

Back in 2015, I joined the Be The Match Bone Marrow Registry. I decided to give a cheek swab and that was that. I forgot about it. It’s a scenario that registration coordinator Anna Brown sees quite often.

“I would say about 50 to 60 percent of the group that I speak to will register,” Brown says about speaking to potential registrants.

She travels the Gulf Coast Region speaking at college drives and other such events looking to get as many people on the registry as possible – speaking on the registry and dispelling many misconceptions regarding bone marrow commonly portrayed in media.

Five years later, a Match Coordinator called me to let me know my sample matched a patient with Aplastic Anemia – a rare blood cancer affecting the bone marrow. Not knowing much about the disease, I decided to do my research on the condition.

“The bone marrow, much like any other organ, can get sick,” Hematologist Dr. John Mason, with Baylor Scott and White, said on the disease – which affects around 300 to 600 people annually in the U.S.

“There are stem cells that are able to regenerate and produce all the blood cells that we need. Aplastic Anemia is a disease in which an injury occurs to those cells,” Dr. Mason explained.

While the diagnosis can be extremely fatal in most cases, there is hope in the form of PBSC – or Peripheral Blood Stem Cells.

“You take someone else’s stem cells and actually infuse them into a recipient, and it replaces the bone marrow and produces the blood components that they need,” Dr. Mason said of the procedure.

Knowing this, along with how cancer has affected my family, I decided to undergo the donation process. After additional testing and a full physical at the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center, where I was then cleared to donate, I was then handed off to a donor coordinator – who helped prep me for the donation day.

“You’re awake. You’re alert. And as for your recipient, they are awake also. So, it’s like a transplant for them,” Donor Coordinator Altonet Filmore said, regarding the donation process.

Filmore would be my coordinator, guiding me as I went through the process leading up to my donation day.

A few weeks went by, and the day of my donation arrived – and after one final briefing, I was hooked up to the Apheresis machine – which spins and separates the collected cells. The process, which lasted around four hours, was almost painless as I sat and waited for the stem cells to be collected. Blood was drawn from one arm, spun and separated, and put back into the other arm. After enough stem cells were collected, they were packaged, labeled, and handed off to a runner who would, in turn, deliver my cells to a hospital for infusion.

Many who either work or volunteer with Be The Match often are on the registry, or have even donated 0 such as the case with my Donor Coordinator.

“I was on the registry for about 14 years or so before I was identified as a match,” Filmore said regarding her donation, which was actually another form of donation involving drawing bone marrow directly from the body. She says she would do it again in a heartbeat.

Be The Match says while there are a lot of people on the registry, there is a great need for diversity among donors.

“On our registry, our patients who are Caucasian have a 70 percent chance of finding a match. If the patient is Asian or Hispanic, that percentage drops all the way down to 40 percent, and if our patient is African-American, that percentage goes all the way down to 20 percent,”Anna Brown said of the registry’s makeup.

Filmore says that registering for the registry is simple, easy and can be done from the comfort of your home. All you would need to do is request a kit from Be The Match, send in your cheek cell samples and Be The Match will put you automatically on the registry.

As for my experience donating, I feel that what I went through is all worth it if what I gave can help save a life.

If you are interested in joining the Be The Match Bone Marrow Registry, you can visit their website here.

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