"A small percentage (1.3%) of donors experience a serious complication due to anesthesia or damage to bone, nerve or muscle in their hip region," according to Be the Match.
On the whole, it's a very low-risk procedure, and it's the one I chose.
However the more common option is to donate peripheral blood stem cells. This requires one injection each day for five days of a drug called filgrastim, which moves stem cells out of the bone marrow, and into the blood stream. During this process, the donor feels achy and sore.
On the fifth day, the donor is connected to an apherisis machine, which draws blood from one arm, isolates the stem cells now circulating in the blood, and then transfuses the donor's blood right back into the other arm. This typically takes four to six hours.
The drug filgrastim is widely considered to be safe by clinicians, with the one caveat that there's limited data specifically about the long-term effects of the drug on healthy donors.
As a donor, that gave me pause. So I looked into what we do know.
In 2009, researchers found that there's "no evidence of increased cancer risk," though study participants had been followed for, on average, about four years.
Miller, who is also one of the study authors, says the latest data continues to indicate no increased risks from taking filgrastim for a PBSC donation.
Donating PBSC simultaneously enrolls you in an ongoing clinical trial to assess long-term risks and benefits.
Making the donation
Six months passed from the day Be The Match first contacted me to the day of donating. The timeline just depends on the recipient's health and treatment schedule.
Of course, there are lots of consent forms to sign, and a complete physical exam with a chest X-ray, EKG, and blood and urine samples before giving the green light for the donation.
The collection itself often requires traveling to another city, but everything from airfare and taxis to hotels and meals is paid for or reimbursed, for you and a companion.
My bone marrow harvest took about an hour. Doctors kept me in the hospital overnight, but not with regular hospital food. Ruth's Chris Steak House caters to marrow donors at my assigned hospital.
The next day I walked out, slowly and a bit sorely, with instructions to take it easy for two weeks as my body replaces the lost marrow.
Immediately after a bone marrow harvest, a volunteer courier travels -- by plane, train, or automobile -- with the stem cells and personally delivers them directly to the patient's location. At this point, the patient's abnormal bone marrow cells have already been intentionally destroyed by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, and the healthy stem cells are given to the patient through an IV drip.
Once infused, the stem cells automatically travel to the recipient's bone cavities and -- if the transplant is successful -- begin making healthy blood cells.
My recipient could be almost anywhere in the world: 51% of transplants through Be The Match involve an international donor or recipient. If we both consent, we can meet after at least one year, but either of us could choose to remain anonymous.
I hope to meet her.
I've created a fairly specific, though imaginary, image in my head of what she looks like, and the teary hug we would share.