"Bone Marrow Donation" Is Nothing Like I Thought It Was

Illustration for article titled "Bone Marrow Donation" Is Nothing Like I Thought It Was

You've seen the bone marrow donation process in medical dramas, right? As I recently discovered, the needle-to-the-hip donation is pretty outdated. Here's why modern donation is a whole different ballgame.


A couple of months ago, I got a call from the National Marrow Donor Program, letting me know that someone potentially needed me to be a donor. I think it's important to help people out, but I didn't like the idea of anyone sticking a needle in my bones, general anesthesia or not. To forestall any suspense, I was "released from the donation" — which is, I suppose, official terminology for "we don't need you, after all." Before I was released, however, I learned that my idea of donation was really outdated.

Only thirty percent of donations involve actual bone marrow. (The ones that do are mostly for children, who seem to do better with traditional bone marrow transplantation.) Seventy percent of the time, being a "bone marrow donor" is only a tad more complicated than donating blood.

Seven out of ten donors go through a procedure called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation, or PBSC. This is so doctors can harvest hematopoietic stem cells, which generally reside in the bone marrow itself, giving rise to red and white blood cells. But stem cells don't always stay put, and can escape into the blood stream.

These days, donors get brief shots of filgrastim, which encourages the stem cells out of the marrow and into the blood. The donor then goes through apheresis, which is a bit like donating blood except the blood gets returned to the body after it goes through a machine that harvests the stem cells. Yes, this does involve two needles to the arm, one to suck the blood out and one to put the blood back, but it's not a surgical procedure. It's just a few hours of lying around, watching movies.

Both procedures, bone marrow donation and PBSC, do essentially the same thing: harvest stem cells. The only difference is the degree of complication. So if you're interested in being a donor, but scared of the pain or complication of a traditional bone marrow transplant, things have changed. Odds are the whole procedure doesn't involve anything more complicated than sitting in a chair waving goodbye to your extra stem cells.

You can join the marrow donor registry at BetheMatch

[Via Peripheral-blood stem cells versus bone marrow from unrelated donors, Donating Bone Marrow, Stem Cell vs Bone Marrow Transplant: What's the Difference?, What is a Blood and Marrow Stem Cell Transplant?]



I've done apheresis many times, (platelet donations), and only had one needle. They pull the whole blood, spin it, and then return the red cells through the same line. They do several cycles to get enough volume.

Apheresis is a piece of cake. You don't even feel woozy after like you do with whole blood donation. They feed you snacks they whole time you are there, and you get to watch a movie. Everyone should be on the bone marrow donation registry.