I am not the kind of person who you would ever expect to call a hero. I’m guilty of drinking too many margaritas, not calling my parents often enough and maintaining a very bad poker face. If you were to put me in a lineup of people you’d pick to save your life, I wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t make your top five. And yet, my bone marrow donation changed all of that. When I groggily answered a call from an unknown number the weekend after the Fourth of July, I fully expected it to be my bank, or maybe my alma mater or even my high school — basically anyone asking for money. It turned out to be neither and, oh yeah, they wanted something far more valuable.
How to Become a Bone Marrow Donor
I joined the Delete Blood Cancer bone marrow registry three years ago. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and had randomly run into an old coworker who was working a registration table outside a Target. She walked me through the cheek swab process. I guarded my purchases while I filled out a simple questionnaire. I waved her goodbye and then promptly forgot about whole thing and moved across the country. The q-tip containing my DNA and floating around in some lab became a distant memory. Then, I got the call. When I heard the words, “You might be a bone marrow match,” coming through the phone, it seemed like a fantasy I had dreamed up to absolve myself of my terrible hangover (see the note above on drinking too many margaritas). But my bone marrow coordinator reassured me this wasn’t a dream — while I was still several rounds of paperwork and tests away from donation, the chances were very likely that I could be a match.
There was never a question in my mind that I would donate. My parents were very nervous, but I knew there was no way I could possibly say no to someone who needed my help to live. That week, I filled out endless forms detailing my medical history, full of questions ranging from my current medications to whether I had ever lived abroad or had a tattoo. My answers were good enough to earn me a blood test, and two weeks later, I was sent to a lab, where a kind nurse distracted me with dating advice while drawing six tiny test tubes worth of blood. A full three weeks passed before I heard the news I had been waiting to hear: Yes, I was a match. Someone needed my bone marrow.
I learned that my recipient was a pre-teen girl with leukemia, and that my donation — if I was healthy enough to donate — could be enough to save her life. Her identity was anonymous — only Delete Blood Cancer would know the specifics until one year after the procedure, but only if we both agreed to stop being anonymous. I thought about her every day leading up to my donation. Bone marrow is often tied to your genetics, and there’s a very strong chance that she’s Latina, like me. I wondered if she loved Taylor Swift as much as I did, if she was a reader or a Girl Scout, if she loved football, or dreamed of her first kiss. I spent every day hoping that I was healthy enough to donate, and when I came down with a cold just days before my physical, I knew I would never forgive myself if I let her down.
Choosing my donation center was a no-brainer — I opted for the one closest to my family, even though it was a five-hour plane ride away. Delete Blood Cancer scheduled and paid for a whirlwind checkup trip, less then 24 hours in the city, enough to squeeze in an EKG reading, an X-ray scan, blood + urine samples and a full physical, all of which confirmed I was healthy enough to donate, despite my cold. Over burgers, my mom told me that somewhere out there, there was a mom who had been praying for me, praying that I would go through with this donation and save her baby. Every time I think about this conversation I cry, because I know she is right.
I flew back to SF with three weeks to wait until my donation, enough time for me to research every article out there on bone marrow donation, watch nearly every YouTube video of recipient/donor reunions and go down a very dark hole of the negative side effects of anesthesia (I don’t recommend it). It turns out that no matter how much Emergen-C you take, staying up all night worrying about accidentally ingesting blood thinners (a major no-no if you are under anesthesia) can literally make you sick with worry. Three days before my procedure, I caught a cold (yes, another one). I flew to my donation site with my best friend Vanessa and a mountain of tissues, more nervous than ever.
What Bone Marrow Donation Is Like
The next morning, we drove to the hospital and I was admitted without a fuss. Cold or no cold, they were going to take my bone marrow. I changed into a hospital gown and finally met my doctor, who drew me a picture and walked me through what was about to happen. There are two ways to donate bone marrow. One is relatively easy and pain free: You sit in a room for approximately six hours while your blood is drawn, the stem cells are removed and your blood is immediately returned to your body. The second is a two-hour procedure that involves anesthesia and a two-week recovery period. The doctor inserts two needles into the back of your pelvic bones, and then draws the bone marrow out of the spongey part of your bone. Because my recipient was a child and had a higher chance of success with bone marrow collected from the bone, I had elected for the more invasive procedure. As the anesthesia pumped into my body, I hugged my mom and Vanessa good-bye, and then gave them a thumbs up as the doctors wheeled me away. I have no memory of this, just a photo as proof, because anesthesia is truly a wonderful drug. When I woke up, I asked the nurses if we were ready to get started, and they laughed. It was over — 1.5 liters of my bone marrow were gone and I had survived.
What Bone Marrow Donation Recovery Is Like
When people talk about bone marrow donation, the first thing they tell you is that it’s painful — really, really painful. They are not wrong, but they’re also grossly exaggerating. For the first four hours after the procedure, I wasn’t allowed to walk (not that I really wanted to). I spent that time buried under blankets as I received a unit of my own blood (donated during the checkup trip), ate buttery pastries and chatted with my friends who visited me in the hospital. When I finally took my first steps, my lower back felt like someone had punched me really hard, and I didn’t walk so much as stiffly amble, as if I was carrying an invisible 20 pounds around my waist. Each trip to the bathroom got easier, but I was also grateful for the Tylenol and ice packs that the nurses provided me. I spent the night in the hospital trying not to bend or otherwise move my back, sleeping a few hours in between vital readings and the very loud snores of my hospital roomies.
What people don’t tell you about recovery is that it will be the biggest self-esteem boost of your life. Every single person — my mom’s coworkers, my aunt’s prayer group, my Lyft driver — will call you a hero and tell you that they are proud to know you. Sure, my back was sore and walking for even ten minutes left me feeling as exhausted as a full-body workout, but my phone was buzzing with messages from people telling me how brave I was. And yet, all I could think about was my recipient. While I was on my way out of the hospital, my bone marrow was making its way to her. My job was done, but hers — building a new immune system — was just getting started.
I left the hospital with painkillers, iron pills and instructions on how to change the “bandages” (read: bandaids) on my wounds (two tiny dots, smaller than a mosquito bite). I just had one mission: eat as much meat as possible, to help restore my body’s iron levels. My recovery was made better by the fact that I have the most amazing friends and family. Less than 24 hours after I left the hospital, two of my best friends took a four-hour bus ride to join me in the recovery fun. We spent the weekend eating gluttonous Italian food, driving around the suburbs listening to Carly Rae Jepson and drinking wine while binge watching Hard Knocks. Everyone should do this, bone marrow donation or not. My parents celebrated my recovery in true Latino style, by lumping it together with three birthdays and an engagement celebration, and inviting 40 people to our house for a party. They heard the doctor’s request that I eat lots of meat and rose to the challenge, smoking chicken, pork and lamb in the in-ground oven my dad and his friend DIYed, and serving enough to feed 80 people (this is not an exaggeration).
Aside from explaining to my littlest cousins why I couldn’t pick them up (as part of my recovery, I wasn’t allowed to pick up more than 20 pounds), and taking a little bit longer than usual to get in and out of the hammock, I was basically back to normal three days after my donation. Now, two weeks later, I’m back to my old speed and eating steak like it’s my day job. Sometimes my old anxieties about getting anesthesia creep in, and I have to remind myself that the donation already happened — that’s how normal my life has gotten post-donation.
Who Should Donate Bone Marrow
Even though I technically can’t donate bone marrow for the next three years, I would do it again in a second if it was needed. Everyone who can donate bone marrow should.
Donating bone marrow was both the scariest and most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. Every day, there are moms, siblings, grandkids and more desperately hoping that their loved ones will find a match on the bone marrow registry. If you’re a person of color, the chances of finding a match on the registry are even slimmer, since people of color make up just 35% of registered donors. Registering to become a bone marrow donor is insanely easily — you can fill out a form at Delete Blood Cancer, and they’ll send you a swab kit for free. All you have to do is swab your cheek with a q-tip and send it in, then you’re on the registry.
Register, then convince your friends, your family, your coworkers and everyone else you know to register. If you ever get the phone call, go ahead and do it — become a hero to someone’s family. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Are you on the bone marrow registry? Know someone who received a bone marrow transplant? Tell us about it in the comments!
(Photos via Delete Blood Cancer, Vanessa Ohta and Kurt Andre)