I have been a registered stem cell donor ever since one of my fellow students was diagnosed with leukemia. Everyone from our study program was determined to help and volunteered to be tested to find out if they could be a suitable donor. Back then they took a scraping from inside your mouth with a cotton swab. If your sample met the initial criteria, then your doctor would take a blood sample for closer inspection.
You can only be added to the register if everything is deemed satisfactory, which means you are eligible to donate and you have given your consent. However that doesn’t automatically mean that you will be called on to donate, as statistically, the probability of finding a suitable donor is relatively low. If I sit opposite someone, the changes of us being compatible are one in a million. This means that a mind-boggling number of people need to donate and be tested to increase the chances of finding a potential match.
In April 2013, eight years after I first registered, I got a call from the German bone marrow donor registry. There was a potential match and they wanted to know if I would still be willing to donate. My profile fitted the bill for an English woman around the same age as me. Naturally, I agreed right away, but later I began to feel uncertain. When doctors tell you about the ways of donating, everything sounds like a piece of cake, but in reality I would have liked a more independent opinion and a more detailed explanation beforehand.
There are two methods of donating bone marrow, both considered very unpleasant for the donor. My first donation was rejected and the woman began to show symptoms of leukemia again within a very short time, so I had to donate a second time. This meant I got to experience both methods.
For my first donation, I chose the classic route, which involved almost 1400 milliliters of bone marrow fluid being extracted from my pelvic area – that’s almost one and a half liters which is an enormous amount of fluid to lose. Five days after the procedure I was still experiencing severe circulatory problems and wasn’t able to work. So when I was asked to donate for a second time, I decided to go for a procedure known as leukapheresis. Every morning and night for four days, you are given injections to stimulate stem cell growth in your bones. This causes severe pain, but while this was a difficult time, I was able to cope with the pain by taking paracetamol each day. On the fifth day, the newly created stem cells are filtered out in hospital via dialysis. That was the worst bit for me: I had to lie still for almost five hours with the infusion needles in my arm. However, compared to the classic donation method, I was up and about much more quickly following the donation.
I was given a general anesthetic for the bone marrow donation, so I had to spend another day under observation in the leukemia ward. The man in the bed next to me was suffering from leukemia and told me about his experiences over the last few years. They hadn’t managed to find him a donor, so he had had to undergo four rounds of chemo in three years. When that didn’t work, a ‘self-donation’ was arranged. In this case, the patient donates the stem cells themselves, but there is a risk of the disease returning.
After this conversation, I was 100% certain I had made the right decision. Once you’ve spoken to someone suffering from the disease, any doubts you personally have quickly disappear.
Naturally, some people will be shocked by tales of stem cell donation. It’s perfectly natural to feel queasy or to be afraid of the pain, but whenever anyone expresses doubt, I tell them about my neighbor in the hospital. Then they understand that five days of pain is nothing if there’s a chance that you could save a life.