No One Loses This Match

A bone marrow donor explains why she was willing to undergo surgery for a stranger

February 26, 2013

Express film writer Kristen Page-Kirby gave her bone marrow to a stranger.

Somewhere there is a 47-year-old man whose name I don’t know, and I am his hero.

He is probably a generic mix of Scottish, German and English, because that’s what I am. I know his blood type is A-positive, because that’s my blood type.

Mostly what I know about him is that he has MDS — the same bone marrow and blood disorder that affected “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts — and that a bone marrow transplant was his only shot at recovery.

He got that transplant about a month ago, after I went to Georgetown University Hospital, where physician Steve Silvestro harvested bone marrow from my hips.

I had joined the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match Registry a little over 10 years ago at a drive. For a decade, I thought about it only when I cleaned out my wallet and saw the card.

And then last fall, Be the Match called with news that I was a potential donor. Two rounds of blood testing and a physical proved that the patient and I were a 95 percent match, close enough to go ahead with the transplant.

A representative from the NMDP shepherded me through the process, answering questions, setting up lab tests and explaining that all costs would be covered. Nothing could take away the nerves, though. What if I was the freak case that died under general anesthesia? I worried it would hurt more than they said it would. What if I caught a crazy super-bug in the hospital?

What got me through was Facebook. Not my account, though friends were great at cheering me on. But thinking about his. I imagined him posting that they found a match and all the likes that got. I couldn’t let down all those likes.

Before receiving donor bone marrow, an MDS patient must undergo intense chemotherapy that wipes out his or her immune system completely; a cold could turn fatal. My donation was bumped twice due to the recipient’s health. Every time it got pushed back, I had to get another blood test to prove I wasn’t pregnant. It also required some logistical juggling with sitters and work, although people tend to be flexible when you pull the “I’m saving someone’s life” card.

The day I arrived at the hospital, I went under general anesthesia and awoke with a tiny hole in each hip, right at the level where a tramp stamp would go. By far, the worst part of the whole procedure was in recovery, when I got back two pints of blood that I had donated to myself weeks earlier to ward off anemia. (“Blood is thick,” Silvestro said, explaining why it’s hard to put back in a body. Which didn’t really help with the pain, but whatever.)

I spent one night in the hospital, which was the second-worst part of the whole procedure. I’ll never understand the hospital philosophy of keeping you healthy by waking you up and stabbing you all the time, but Silvestro had a good excuse: “We did just bore two holes in your back. We’d like to make sure they stopped bleeding.”

My back hurt badly for two days and then ached for a week. I was tired for two weeks. For a month, I took iron supplements to build my red blood cells back up. I’ve only just been allowed to exercise again.

Donating bone marrow is not, in any sense, fun. That’s why you’re allowed to change your mind at any point in the process, including the day of surgery, even though pulling out that late means the recipient will almost certainly die.

For me, the donation meant a a week off from work and minor physical side effects. For this man I don’t know, the donation may have meant his life.

If we both consent, we can contact each other anonymously at three, six and nine months post-transplant; we can lift the anonymity after a year. I hope he lets me know how he’s doing and whether my marrow has given him an inordinate fondness for Sour Skittles.

In my head, we meet and he’s a nice guy and then I get invited to his kid’s wedding or something — the way our Lifetime movie would end. But we might not meet. He might die. He might already be dead.

Even if he is (and I hope, I hope, I hope he’s not), I’d do it again. Because, at least for a while, he had a shot.

What is bone marrow?

It’s a tissue found in bones that’s responsible for creating blood cells. In a transplant, patients with a blood disorder have their diseased marrow destroyed and replaced by healthy donor marrow, which is able to form healthy new cells.


Robin Roberts

Roberts Rules

“Good Morning America” viewers welcomed Robin Roberts back to the program Wednesday after a six-month absence. After the TV host was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), she received a bone marrow transplant from her sister. Roberts plans to appear just a few days a week until she finds the energy to work full time.

Become a Donor

Registering for the donor program requires only a simple cheek swab. You can do it at a community drive or from home with a kit (see Bethematch.com for details). People between the ages of 18 and 44 are preferred, although anyone between the ages of 18 and 60 is welcome to join the registry. Because patients are most likely to match with someone of a similar racial makeup, minorities and individuals of mixed races are especially needed.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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