In just over two decades, the National Marrow Donor Program has facilitated more than 38,000 bone marrow and cord blood transplants for sick patients who need to look outside their families for matches, including 4,800 last year.
Over 8 million people are registered in the Be The Match registry as potential donors, and life-saving transplants are used to treat more than 70 diseases, although 72 percent of transplants facilitated by the program are for patients with leukemia or lymphoma.
I began researching this topic after hearing the news that a Long Island woman has died of leukemia despite being matched with four people in the registry. Submitting the sample is not a binding contract to donate.
We can’t assume lack of sincerity on the part of the potential donors. It could be that they had health issues of their own or faced some other extenuating circumstances. But it could also be that, beyond submitting a sample they didn’t think much about what is involved in the donation process. Perhaps operating under misconceptions, they each counted on someone else stepping up, with tragic results.
Some two decades ago I joined the registry as part of a drive for a young woman with leukemia named Allison Atlas. Sadly, her search for a donor was unsuccessful, but her legacy is that hundreds, if not thousands of people joined the life-saving registry because of her.
Figuring that the odds of a match were around the same as winning the lottery, I didn’t think much about it until about eight years later, when I was asked to go to the New York Blood Center in Manhattan to submit further samples. Since there were no follow up calls after that, I’ll never know if a closer match was found or if the anonymous patient succumbed before a transplant could happen. Despite the call, I never looked into what was involved in the process and assumed that it would involve a surgical procedure with a big needle.
It turns out that in almost three quarters of cases donation is made without surgery via a process not unlike donation of platelets or plasma, in which blood is removed from one arm, filtered through a machine that extracts needed cells and then returned to the other arm. In the 25 percent of cases requiring surgical extraction from the bone, it’s done under general or local anesthesia and does not require an overnight hospital stay
It’s easier than ever to register with a simple cheek swab. You can even do it at home after receiving a kit. I won’t bore you with cliches about saving a life and saving the world, but I will say that I once interviewed a woman who completed the surgical donation process and, while she will never know the impact on the patient, she insists that any discomfort she experienced was well worth it.