At the end of July last year, I donated bone marrow to a woman with leukemia that I didn’t know in hopes that I could give her a second chance at life through an amazing national registry called Be The Match.
January is National Blood Donor Month & the perfect time for me to share my life-changing experience. Even though I haven’t met her (yet), I never would have dreamed it was in my future to potentially save a life through donation.
Back in 2017, I got news that a former cast mate from my cruise ship days, Julie, was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia. An amazing talent & even more amazing friend. I was heart-broken. With so much life to live, I refused to believe that this was the end of her story (spoiler alert, it wasn’t!) As she updated all of her friends & family about her progress, one post talked about needing a bone marrow transplant. Without even thinking, I replied “I’ll do it!” She let us know that if we truly wanted to help someone in need that we should sign up with Be The Match – a national registry to help those with blood diseases find a second chance. So, I signed up in January 2018 – the same night I saw my friends post. (If you’d like to donate to Julie’s cause in fighting cancer, visit (www.gofundme.com/julieleblancefights)
By May, just 4.5 months after I signed up, I received a call that I was a potential match for someone & if I accepted I was to get some blood drawn to further assess if I was the best candidate for this patient. I accepted, got blood drawn & then waited to hear back.
All I knew about this person was her age & her disease. So I named her Nancy. The identities of the patients are kept very confidential throughout the process. Nancy also knows nothing about me. But 9 months from my donation day I’ll get an update on how she’s doing. And maybe someday, I’ll get to meet her.
Another month goes by & I receive news that the doctor overseeing Nancy’s treatment has deemed me the best match. Now it was time for me to get a full medical workup with x-rays & more blood tests. And by the end of June, I was setting up my donation day.
With Be The Match there are two options – PBSC (peripheral blood stem cells) or surgical. With PBSC, it’s non-surgical & 5 days leading up to donation day you’re given a series of injections of filgrastim. This is a medication that increases the number of blood-forming cells in your bloodstream. On donation day your blood is passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells & the remainder is returned back to you through the other arm. With the surgical option, the donor goes under anesthesia & doctors use needles to withdraw bone marrow from your pelvic bone. With both procedures, about a quart of bone marrow is taken out. Nancy’s doctor decided that the best method of donation was a surgical procedure. This is completely dependent on each patients unique case.
Between the full medical evaluation & the donation day I had 2 appointments to make sure I wasn’t pregnant or hadn’t suddenly contracted any diseases myself. I also “donated” blood to myself in case I needed it post surgery. With everything in the clear, we were a GO for donation.
On donation day, my fiancé Tim & I woke up at 4:30 am to get to Loyola Hospital in Chicago for a 5:30am to check-in. My procedure was to take place at 7:30am & would last between 1-2 hours. Tim kept me distracted as I began to get nervous with all the IV’s & monitors being hooked up. And when it was time to go, he kissed my face & said “see ya in a bit.” He kept everyone updated throughout the day on my progress & how I was feeling.
I passed out FAST. I don’t even remember going in to the operating room. But I remember waking up thinking how tired I was. And in no pain which I noticed right away. It was almost that feeling of having a sore back from sleeping too long.
I got up to my recovery room, got out of bed & thats when I felt discomfort. I realized that nothing truly “hurt”. But it felt as if I’d fallen on my coccyx & it was now very sore. Tim had to help me lower on to the toilet (super sexy) & also get in & out of bed. And because of all the water I was drinking I was up & down a lot throughout the day & later that night. I think I fell in love with him all over again that day seeing what an amazing care-taker he was. We were given the green light to head home around 4:30pm that same day. I was prescribed some pain medication as well as a list of vitamins I should be taking throughout my recovery process such as iron, calcium & magnesium.
I’m sure you’re wondering about the risks involved. Every doctor will tell you that with every surgery there is a risk of death even if that risk is less than 1%. This is why you undergo so many tests & consultations to eliminate any issues that could result in post-surgical issues. A procedure like this has less than 1.34% chance of death & those few are due to anesthesia complications.
Recovery time for my procedure was about 3 weeks. Seems like a long time but it took 3 weeks until I felt I was feeling completely healthy.
First week: My hips & back were sore & movement was limited. I also was fatigued & felt light-headed from time to time. All were completely normal for the recovery process
Second week: Less soreness & the fatigue/light headedness started to fade.
Third week: I felt mostly myself aside from the very few times I became light-headed. I could also start working out again doing light weights & gentle cardio (brisk walking, stair climbing).
Another thing to note is the regeneration of your bone marrow takes between 4-6 weeks. If the fatigue & light-headedness last a little longer it’s most likely connected to that.
Prior to my first phone call in May I had been doing the keto diet & exercising regularly which put me in prime condition for a surgery. The healthier you are, the faster your recovery. I also truly feel in my heart that this was God at work in my life. I was fully committed to this new diet/fitness lifestyle which primed my body for this process. Not to say you need to be in the best shape to do this, but I think it made a difference. Maybe in ways I don’t even know.
It’s crazy that in under 5 months of signing up for the registry I was matched to someone. Tim is still waiting to hear if he’s a match. Some that register go their whole life not being matched while some match multiple people! On average 1 in 300 Be The Match members are matched to someone however 1 in 430 will actually go on to donate.
Here are some statistics for those of a different heritage to be matched:
African America/Black: 23%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 41%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 57%
We can change those statistics & we should. All it takes is a little bit of your time. And what an amazing life changing experience this was. I’ll have a updated post in a few months once I’ve heard about Nancy. In the meantime, send her your prayers!
Want to learn more about the process? Visit: https://join.bethematch.org/faqs-about-joining?language=en_US
Ready to sign up? Visit: https://join.bethematch.org
Want to get more involved aside from donating? Visit: https://join.bethematch.org/support-the-cause/participate/volunteer