Making Good On An Unfulfilled Promise: Be The Match

Jun 13, 2016

Signing up for the bone marrow donation registry requires getting cell samples from the cheeks, using a swab kit like this.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

Something has gnawed at me for about a decade – a promise I made to myself, but didn’t keep.

As a public radio reporter in Iowa City, Iowa, I covered a ceremony honoring people who'd donated bone marrow.

By now the details are vague; I recall a tear-filled hug between two people who'd have been strangers ... had the woman not signed up for the bone marrow registry, come up as a match, and saved the other person's life.

The ceremony in Iowa was emotional: Hugs, tears, joy. I vowed to get on the registry myself. (I'm a believer in organ donation too -- my now-deceased neighbor was part of her grandkids' lives thanks to a heart transplant. But for now, I need my heart. But bone marrow? That, the living can share).

And yet a decade passed by and I'd never gotten around to it. Rotten, right? I chalk it up to half laziness, half queasiness at the prospect of a needle.

Then last month, the registry came to me. The Illinois State Police organized a marrow donor registration drive at the capitol.

I took the opportunity to make good on that long-ago promise.

Amanda Howie with Community Blood Services of Illinois and Be the Match --- walked me through it: Bone marrow donation registration: 101.

"So it's really easy to join the registry all you have to do is a cheek swab,” Howie explained. “Then if you are called to be a match - which your chance is one in 500 -- there are two ways you could be asked to give. Seventy-five percent of the time it's just like a plasma draw, we are just filtering out your stem cells and giving you back most of your blood products. The other 25-percent of the time … it’s surgery, and this is what people are so scared of. But you are always under anesthesia, and most people wake up and most people say they wake up and feel like they fell on the ice. So it's not like what you see in Grey's Anatomy or any silly movie. It's much easier and you could be literally the only person in the world who could save somebody else's life."

Howie says while blood can be used in every day traumas (hence the push for donations to help victims of the Sunday's massacre in Orlando), “marrow is specifically used for patients who have leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia, other anemia and about 70 other auto immune diseases. So by the time a patient gets to needing a bone marrow transplant this is their last hope at a cure or their only hope at a cure.”

Not everyone can do it; only those between the ages of 18 and 44 can sign up for the donation registry (though you stay on until age 61).

“Because the younger you are the better the result for the patient,” Howie says.

Minorities are especially encouraged to participate. While Caucasian patients find a match 96 percent of the time, Howie says it drops down to 75 percent of the time for an African American; she says Latinos and Asians are in the 82-85 percent range.

Howie says she signed up after working at the blood center, and “hearing people say no. I had to ask myself the same question that I'm sure your listeners are thinking: ‘Would I really do this? In any situation, could I step up and say yes and save a life?’ And about two weeks later I decided I wanted to and I swabbed my cheek. I'm on the registry but it's been five years and I haven't been called yet. But I've registered people who have donated just six weeks after swabbing their cheek.”

Of course, paperwork is involved – it took me roughly ten minutes, and requires providing contact information and a brief medical history.

“We ask you things like 'do you have any back, hip, neck or spine problems?' and the reason we're asking is because we don't want to aggravate a problem that's already there. So there are reasons that we're asking the questions. We want to be selective before you ever get on the registry and we won't let you give if it looks like there could be an issue with you donating,” she says.

The check swab is quick. A potential donor swirls a barcoded cotton swab on the upper right, lower right, upper left and lower left inner cheeks for five to ten seconds, in a circular motion, then sticks each swab onto a sticky tab inside a folder.

I haven’t gotten any calls that my marrow matches up with someone who needs it. But now, at least, it’s possible. You can get more information online at www.bethematch.org.

Put it on your to-do list. While I won’t judge if it takes you awhile, take it from me: It feels good to cross something off a to-do list that’s potentially life-saving.