Abby West first decided to become a bone-marrow donor when she was a young journalist covering a bone-marrow drive. Little did she know that nearly two decades later, she’d be called upon to try to help save someone’s life.
“The newspaper I had joined had a reporter who had passed away of sickle cell anemia, and I had become aware of the need for African-Americans to join the registry,” West, a senior editor at Yahoo Celebrity, tells Yahoo Beauty about her decision to sign up with Be The Match. “I was covering a bone-marrow drive for African-Americans, and it seemed like the right thing to do.” West says she simply got her cheek swabbed — which yields a sample of cells that doctors use to compare specific protein markers with those of patients who need a bone-marrow transplants — and then went about her life.
But in June 2014 — 17 years later — she received an email from Be the Match, a registry of the National Marrow Donation Program, saying that her bone marrow was a potential match for someone in need. She called the organization to learn more. “You get a sense of urgency, need, and what is expected of you,” she says. To make sure she was a healthy donor, West needed to fill out forms, and once it was determined she met all of the donor criteria, she moved on to a physical examination.
West says she underwent seven weeks of blood testing and prep work before she donated bone marrow. Part of the process was making a decision about whether she would do a surgical bone-marrow donation, in which a person is put under general or local anesthesia and liquid marrow is taken from the back of the pelvic bone, or a nonsurgical peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) harvest, in which blood is drawn from one arm into a machine, where it is spun and the stem cells are extracted. The remaining blood is then returned to the person’s body via the other arm. West chose the latter option, and started receiving Neupogen shots, which increased her body’s production of stem cells. “It puts your stem cells on overdrive,” she explains.
West says the message from Be the Match was always clear: It was her body and she could change her mind at any point. However, she says, they request that if you’re going to change your mind, you do so before you begin the shots. Here’s why: At this point, the patient she would be donating to was starting chemotherapy in anticipation of receiving her stem cells. “You get the sense that someone’s life is in the balance and there’s no turning back — only moving forward,” she says. “You need to understand the commitment to potentially saving someone’s life.”
West says the shots weren’t painful, but she did experience some flu-like symptoms. “You feel a little achy,” she says. “Your body is becoming laden with stem cells. It’s uncomfortable, but not painful.” A nurse came to West’s office to give her the shots, but donors can also go to clinics to get them, or do them on their own. “They try to make it as seamless and painless as possible,” she says, noting that the shots made her feel more tired than usual. “I wasn’t on my gym grind that week,” she says.
The day of the donation, West reported to a blood donation center at 7 a.m., along with a friend to keep her company, and sat in a chair for about eight hours while her blood was drawn, spun, and returned to her body. “When you have to go to the bathroom, you just stop, unhook, go the bathroom, and hook back up again,” she says. “It wasn’t a hardship — I can’t complain about it. It was eight hours of sitting and talking.” West says the process was “mildly uncomfortable,” but she knew that in about 48 hours, someone was going to have a life-saving operation. Afterwards, she felt tired and went to sleep for a little while. “I did it on Friday and was back at work on Monday, but I would have been fine to go to work the next day,” she says.
Stem cells are regenerative, and there is no long-term harm to the donor, Muzzafar Qazilbash, MD — professor of stem cell transplantation at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — explains to Yahoo Beauty.
While there is a need for people of all races and ethnicities to donate bone marrow, there a special need for African-Americans to do so, Qazilbash says. African-Americans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population, and only about 25 percent to 30 percent of people who could potentially benefit from a bone-marrow transplant have a perfectly matched sibling donor available, he says. The rest of the patients have to find matched, unrelated donors from the National Marrow Donor Program. “However, the overwhelming majority of approximately 25 million volunteer donors registered with NMDP are people of Western and Northern European origins, and as a result it is very hard to find matching, unrelated matchingdonors for African-American patients,” he says. “Encouraging more people of African ancestry will increase the possibility of finding unrelated donors for African-American patients, which can be life saving.”
Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty while some ethnicities have very little genetic variability, there is a lot of genetic variability in the African-American population — making the probability of having two genetically similar people less likely. “Then you bring up the issue of how few African-American donors there are, and there is difficulty finding an adequate donor,” he says.
Donor stem cells can be used to treat life-threatening conditions such as leukemia and lymphoma, as well as sickle-cell anemia, Jacoub says. They can also help people with bone-marrow failure syndromes such as aplastic anemia — a condition in which a person’s body stops producing blood cells — as well as help treat children born with severe immune system deficiencies, Qazilbash says.
West never received information about the person she donated bone marrow to, other than the fact that the patient was a man. She doesn’t know how he fared after the donation, but learned that he struggled with graft-versus-host disease, a complication that can occur after a stem-cell or bone-marrow transplant. “It’s fairly common for people to have it and move forward, but I’ve never found out how he ultimately ended up,” she says.
West was so moved by her experience that she eventually joined the board of Be the Match, and now urges others to become bone-marrow donors. “You always think about what you would want someone to do for you or your family member,” she says, noting that she’s still on the registry and would donate again if there was a need.
Of course, blood and needles are involved, which can scare some people off, but West says it’s worth it in the end. “In order to do something heroic, you have to overcome some discomfort and some trepidations,” she said.
To find out more about becoming a bone-marrow donor, please visit BeTheMatch.org.
Five Oscars Beauty Launches You Need to Know About
Janelle Monáe $750 Headband Led the Pack of Stunning Oscars Hair Accessories
The $15 Product Behind Taraji P. Henson’s Amazing Glow at 2017 Oscars