I quickly realized there are a lot of misconceptions about the process of donating bone marrow. So I’m here to set the record a bit straighter. I’m no doctor, so take it with a grain of salt. And keep in mind that everyone’s experience is subjective. This is just my take on what I went through.
Hey, Nice Tissue!
It starts with a phone call.
“You might be a good match for someone on our list. Can we take some blood?”
It takes no more than 10 minutes, and that’s if you’ve got blood that flows like molasses. After this, there’s either a call (yay!) or a letter (boo!). The call will come soon – the letter can take months.
In my case, I got both. The first time, I didn’t hear anything for months, and then a letter showed up explaining that my match hadn’t been able to proceed. This can mean they got better or worse. The call happens within a week or two, and they’ll ask you if you’d like to move forward. (Duh, yes.)
This involves a good half-day at the hospital. You’ll want your Donor Buddy to come along, but warn them that it’s incredibly boring. I spent 5 hours going over legal information, risks, and the procedure, followed by a bunch of physical testing: chest X-ray, EKG, more blood draws, and a complete physical examination. During this time, they ask you several times if you would still like to continue. That may seem weird, but here’s the thing: Once you agree to donate, there’s no backing out.
Well, technically, there is. They can’t force you to donate if you decide you don’t want to, but once you’ve started the process, and signed the donation papers, the patient on the other end begins prep, meaning their entire immune system gets wiped out, leaving them defenseless to infections until your marrow is in their body. So you can back out, but it’s a shitty thing to do that will almost definitely kill someone. Not the kind of karma you want floating around.
“But that’s going to hurt…”
The first response from friends and family almost every time they found out I’d be donating was about pain. “That’s going to hurt so bad.” “On your birthday? That sucks.”
I felt puzzled by such responses. Why would giving someone more time with their loved ones suck to do on my birthday? What would I be doing otherwise? Eating cake and laying around? I can do that any year, and to be honest, I don’t really like cake.
“Aren’t you like, awake, for that?”
This is where pain and consciousness get confused. Patients with cancer sometimes need bone marrow biopsies. This involves sticking a very big needle into bone to take out a tiny sample. According to my PA, because the procedure takes almost no time at all, they can’t justify putting a patient under, so they use novocaine to numb the area a bit and plunge right in. It’s very painful.
The donor receives general anesthesia, or, if you have a history of malignant hyperthermia, you get an epidural. Awake for that one, but no feeling from the waist down. (This is the fun pain blocker they administer to women in labor. I entertained the idea because it’d be nifty to talk to my doctors while they harvested, but ultimately decided being knocked out was a better choice.)
4:30 am Water & Anesthesia
On donation day, you wake up early, shower using special soap, drink some water, and head to the hospital. I went in for surgery around 8 am and woke up in Recovery Stage 1 around 9:30. I was in a good deal of discomfort, as I was laying with rolled up towels under my incision sites – this pressure is applied to curtail bleeding. The incisions are so small they don’t require stitches. Don’t fret – they get painkillers into your system as soon as you’re awake and semi-cogent.
“Hello, Percocet. Nice to meet you.”
After a shot of Dilaudid, they moved me to Stage 2 Recovery, wasting no time in getting Percocet down the hatch. Percocet (also known as Oxycodone), is a sneaky little drug. One moment, I was awake and alert, joking with my parents and my wonderful nurse, and then, WHAM: Mid-sentence, I checked out, staring blankly at my nurse.
This painkiller made for hilarious texts over the course of the first few days.
“Won’t you be tired for months?”
I heard many concerns about fatigue. No, I wasn’t tired for months. Two weeks, roughly, before I was back to normal. I slept heaps the first few days, and then gradually less each day after. I do a good deal of physical activity on an average day, though, so it did take about 10 days before I could make it through without needing a serious bear nap mid-day.
Pain depends on tolerance. I was really sore, but I also slept for most of those first few days. My biggest problem was being lightheaded constantly. I shuffled from place to place like an old lady, though truthfully, I was up and moving around sooner than I probably should have been. (I don’t sit still well.)
The docs load you up with iron pills and an all-access pass to eat as much steak as you’d like that first week, so the anemia passes with patience and good nutrition. I was back to walking normally in about 5 days and lifting weights in about 10. I held off on leg day until the two-week marker, when you’re allowed to resume running (notice that my timeline from my Oxy text differs).
Note: I am very active. I walk dogs an average of 6 hours a day, and spend between 1 and 3 hours in the gym 5 days a week. I train like an athlete when I workout, so recovery may look different for someone who is less physically enthusiastic.
What About Now?
It’s been a few months since donating. A few weeks after my procedure, I left the country for an epic vacation in Australia and Bali. I walked all over the island, climbed heaps of stairs at a waterpark, engaged in pool antics with small children, and spent an entire morning surfing (which mostly meant getting knocked around by the ocean and cutting my foot on some devil rocks hidden on the ocean floor).
So there you have it. Not nearly as terrifying as many would think. If you still have questions left unanswered, feel free to ask! And for the love of all things good and beautiful, do something nice for someone today, just because you can.