“Good morning. Is this Ryan? I’m calling from the bone marrow registry. You are a match!”
I was sitting in my office in Chai Lifeline’s West Coast Regional Center when I received that call. I had been tested sometime around 1998 and had not thought about that day in years. Then, out of the blue, I was asked if I would be willing to go through further testing to confirm that I was a match for “the patient.”
My response was simple: Tell me what to do! The caller from the registry went through some basic info and made sure to tell me that while the procedure for me as a potential stem cell donor was safe, it was still my choice, and ask “Are you sure you want to go through this process?”
My response yet again was simple: “I work for an organization that helps children with cancer. I have seen children die from this disease. This is not even a question for me! What do I do next?”
And that was the honest truth. I had seen too many children suffer terribly from all sorts of cancers, including those for whom only a stem cell transplant could save them. I recall being on edge for a week while I waited for a special testing kit to arrive for me to take with me to the nearest lab for additional testing. I was nervous at the possibility of saving a life (ok, and maybe a little nervous about the needle itself!) but excited at the prospect of being one of the few people in the world who could potentially save the life of a total stranger.
As a potential donor, I got the royal treatment at the lab. Even the phlebotomist knew that this was not your run of the mill cholesterol test and I was bumped up on the line, having my blood drawn before the five or six people who had arrived ahead of me at the lab. The blood contained in that vial could be the lifeblood for a cancer patient somewhere in the world!
Fast forward a couple of weeks after the call—weeks of anxious waiting for the follow-up call to let me know the match was good and to start preparing to give my stem cells to save a life—and the call finally arrived. It was not the call I was expecting: While I was a decent match, a better match had been found and the oncologists decided to go with the other potential donor.
I was bummed! Despite not giving much thought to the bone marrow testing I’d gone through almost two decades before, there was this persistent nagging in the back of my mind that I wished to be one of the chosen ones!
Today, I am involved on a daily basis in finding stem cell matches for patients around the world. As the largest Jewish bone marrow registry in the world, Ezer Mizion is actively involved every single day in saving lives. With an average of 30+ stem cell transplants being facilitated each month in Israel and around the world, Ezer Mizion is a powerful force in the lifesaving arsenal of modern medicine.
But I get a question very often that is important for people to understand the stem cell donation process: How does the whole process work? And the invariable follow-up question: Is it dangerous?
Twenty years ago, bone marrow donation was not without its risks. General anesthesia was typically required, as were several days or weeks of recuperation from the surgery and the pain from bone marrow being harvested directly from the bone.
Medicine has advanced considerably and today it is indeed uncommon for physicians to request bone marrow in this form. The more common practice today is a peripheral blood stem cell collection where the necessary stem cells are removed from the blood itself.
The donor will receive a series of injections over four or five days that help move stem cells out of the bone marrow and into the blood stream. Filgrastim or Plerixifor are typically tolerated well by the donor although mild flu-like symptoms can occur; these symptoms end a few days after the injections stop and leave no long-term effects.
So, your body is now ready for your life-saving stem cells to be harvested. In either a hospital, or in Ezer Mizion’s state-of-the-art harvesting center, the donor will be set up in a comfortable chair and connected via a needle in each arm to a harvesting machine. Blood is removed from one arm, filtered through the machine to remove the stem cells, and the rest returned to your body through the other arm. The whole procedure will typically take five to seven hours after which your work as a life-saving hero is complete!
Facilitating more than one transplant every single day of the year, Ezer Mizion has become quite adept at getting the harvested stem cells to recipients across the globe. The stem cells are typically hand-couriered to wherever the patient is located in the world to ensure that there are no delays. The patient must receive the stem cells within 72 hours of harvesting and Ezer Mizion takes no risks ensuring that the precious stem cells get to their destination in time.
For the stem cell transplant recipient—the patient—the process is more daunting and we will cover this experience next time.
I think often nowadays about that call I received several years ago. There is a small tinge of jealousy I feel when I meet one of Ezer Mizion’s incredible stem cell donors, people who have literally given life to perfect strangers, sometimes a world away. As an “almost donor” I do feel a sense of pride knowing that my blood holds life-saving properties, just as everyone’s holds that potential to save a life.
By Ryan Hyman
Ryan Hyman, a Teaneck resident, is the national director of development for Ezer Mizion, the world’s largest Jewish bone marrow registry. He can be reached at [email protected].