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5 Steps to Save a Life

Learn, Swab, Save Lives
All it takes is a cheek swab to join the registry - you now have a chance to be someone’s hero.
Confirmatory Typing
In the future, you may be called as a potential match for a patient. If so, you will be asked to have a blood test.
If your blood test is a match, you will have a physical exam to ensure you are in good health and fit to donate.
You will donate either blood stem cells or bone marrow.
Your donation is transplanted into the patient.

Step 4: Donation

Whether donating peripheral blood stem cells or bone marrow, the donation will be at the same medical center where the physical exam took place. One of the first questions every donor asks is, “Will I get the Gift of Life blanket?” Yes! Every donor receives our comfy blanket signed with personal messages of thanks and hope from our staff members.

A smiling young Hispanic man sits in a donation chair giving stem cells for his matching recipient. Blood is being drawn from his left arm, the stem cells are being collected by the apheresis machine, and his remaining blood is being returned via his right arm.

Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Donation

Peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) circulate in the blood stream all the time. Their formal name is hematopoietic [hee-mat-oh-poi-ET-ik] stem cells or hemocytoblasts [hee-moe-SIGH-toe-blasts]; these cells generate all other blood cells. By transplanting them into a patient whose immune system has been completely eliminated, they can grow an entirely new immune system for that person – free of cancer or the condition that caused the need. While PBSC are found in great concentration in the bone marrow, they also circulate in the blood and can be encouraged with medication to flock to the blood stream, making them easier to collect and ensuring that the collection center can draw sufficient quantities for the patient. Please note, there is no cost to you for donating. 

Preparation with Filgrastim/Neupogen

Donors preparing for a PBSC donation will receive injections of Filgrastim (usually in the form of a medication called Neupogen™), a synthetic version of a naturally occurring protein found in the body, to encourage the stem cells to enter the blood stream. The injections are given once per day for five days. The first four Neupogen injections will be given to you by a nurse at a time and location most convenient for you. The fifth injection is given at the collection center on the day of donation.

Filgrastim has been used to prepare donors for more than 30 years, so the effects are well documented. Some donors have no side effects from the Filgrastim. However, others experience symptoms such as bone pain, fatigue, headaches, or nausea, which can be managed with Tylenol. These symptoms typically disappear within a day of the final injection, sometimes within a few hours. Every person will have a slightly different experience.

Apheresis collection process

Collection of the stem cells is done while you are fully conscious. A needle is placed in each arm, with blood drawn from one arm, processed through a cell-separating (apheresis) machine that identifies and collects only the needed stem cells, then the remaining blood is returned to your other arm. Collection may take 4 to 6 hours, depending on the amount of cells needed for the patient. This depends on the size of the patient, for example, a child requires fewer cells than an adult. During the process you are fully awake and able to talk, read, and watch movies. You are not able to get up and walk around.

Once the required amount of cells has been collected, the bag of donated stem cells will be turned over to the courier and hand-carried to the transplant center. If the center is overseas, special customs arrangements are in place to prevent delays.

After collection

Most donors find it important to eat soon after collection. You may feel achy or lightheaded after donation, but every person reacts differently. Some donors report they felt perfectly normal a few hours later, and others say it took them a day or two. Most donors can return to work the next day and resume full athletic activities within a few days. Your stem cells will naturally regenerate and return to normal levels on their own.

Aaron, a young man in his early 20s, has just donated bone marrow and sits with his parents on either side of him. All are smiling and look proud and excited. Bone marrow donation With Gift of Life takes 1-2 hours, and is an outpatient process.

Bone Marrow Donation

Preparation for bone marrow donation requires no special injections beforehand. This is an outpatient surgical procedure, completed while you are under general anesthesia. The physician will explain the risks of undergoing anesthesia, and your Gift of Life coordinator is always available to answer any questions you might have. Please note, there is no cost to you for donating. 

Once you are anaesthetized, aspiration needles are inserted into the pelvic bone at the iliac crest, in the back of the pelvis. You can easily feel the iliac crest by putting your hands on your hip bones, thumbs forward, palms to your back. The large bones you can feel under your fingers are the iliac crest. A syringe is used to draw out bone marrow. The amount needed is based on the size and condition of the patient, for example, a child requires less than a full-grown adult. No stitches are needed, and when the collection is completed, the site is bandaged and you are sent to a recovery room until the anesthesia wears off. Most collection centers discharge donors the same day; a few ask donors to remain overnight.

After collection

Bone marrow naturally regenerates during the weeks following donation. Some donors feel backache and/or mild fatigue during this time, while others feel normal after a day or two. Those donors who experience stiffness or backache after collection find it is treatable with acetaminophen or similar over the counter medications. Athletic individuals should be able to gradually resume a normal level of activities over the next two weeks. Each person’s experience will vary.

Ongoing follow up for all donors

All donors, whether they provide bone marrow or PBSC, will be contacted by Gift of Life several times during the months following your donation, and periodically over the next year. We will also contact you when we receive updates on your recipient’s health at 30 days, six months, and yearly.

Can I be called to donate again? 

Yes, you will go back into the registry as a potential donor for other patients in need. Sometimes a donor is called to help the same recipient a second time during their recovery. Occasionally a recipient needs a booster to help encourage the transplant to take hold, or they may need an infusion of additional immune system cells to encourage the new system to fully engraft.