My journey giving a gift of hope by donating bone marrow

By Shawn Gelsinger, Senior Manager, Quality Operations

In November, after a long journey, I finally became a bone marrow donor. 

I wanted to share some insights on what led me to bone marrow donation with the hope that others interested in donating will learn something from my positive experience and that I can help remove some of the doubts and fears that have prevented them from becoming a person who says “yes” to bone marrow donation.

My journey to becoming a donor began four years ago, when I saw an internet post of a guy holding a bag of what looked like blood while smiling in a big, comfortable chair. As I read the post I learned that the bag was full of bone marrow – and not normal blood, which confused me. I’ve watched the television shows Grey’s Anatomy and House, so clearly, I’m a “medical expert,” and I know that bone marrow transplants involve a lot of pain and getting jabbed in the hip with a giant needle to suction the marrow out, right?

Boy was I wrong! The guy I mentioned earlier actually had a small needle in his arm while his blood circulated through a machine that extracted stem cells that would be used for the bone marrow transplant. After reading the post I thought to myself, “if my cells match someone who has no other medical options, what good does it do if they are only in my body? How does that make the world a better place?” I felt a strong moral obligation, so I signed up to be a donor through the National Marrow Donor Program and the Be The Match registry.

I learned that the odds of getting matched with someone are low and most people on the marrow registry are never matched. I wasn’t expecting to get the call, however, I always knew I would say “yes” if given the chance.  

Only four weeks after I signed up, I was surprised to receive that call. I was amazed at how quickly it happened. However, that donor opportunity was derailed when the doctor involved decided to pursue a different treatment plan, which is always a possibility. I was pretty bummed and couldn’t help but wonder if the patient was okay or if the prognosis had taken a turn for the worse.

Luckily, because I had begun the process and donated additional blood after the initial call, the likelihood that I would get called again improved. Four years later, I ultimately matched with a 53-year-old gentleman who had a disease called Myelofibrosis. After agreeing to the donation, I was required to complete further testing and to have a physical. Everything checked out and soon I would be on a flight to Houston. That’s a long way from home but Houston was the closest collection center with availability at the time. Be The Match covered all the expenses.

The process starts with taking medication for four days prior to donating with a fifth and final dose administered the morning of the donation. I was advised of potential side-effects which could range from bone and joint pain to congestion and flu like symptoms. The first day on the meds wasn’t that bad. I felt a little lightheaded while at work for a few minutes at a time. The next three days were a little worse – I had bone and joint pain, headaches, and was fatigued.

I made my way down to Houston with my mom in tow (my wife stayed home with our kiddo) and spent most of the night tossing and turning because I was nervous about the procedure. I realized that my worries, even going back to those about the medication, were all centered around pain. But what is a little pain – other than a temporary inconvenience – compared to giving someone hope?

I showed up bright and early to the collection center along with another gentleman who was also donating through the Be The Match organization. Before I knew it, the IV was in my left arm and the collection needle was in my right arm. During the procedure I was given a blanket to keep me warm and comfortable. The gentleman donating alongside me had a smooth process and was done in a few hours, however my day was a bit longer and would take the full eight hours to ensure my recipient would get the dose amount he desperately needed.

Finally, after eight episodes of the television program The Wheel of Time, and nearly 10 “bajillion” calcium gummies to prevent side effects from the anti-coagulant medication, the process was complete. I took a photo holding the cells to memorialize the occasion because how often do you get a chance to hold a bag of your own blood stem cells? I thought it was pretty cool.

Be The Match

Looking back on it, I am blown away by how smoothly everything went. The folks at Be The Match took care of everything – all grounded in care for you as a donor and for the patient. The nursing staff was incredible and took such great care of me. Everyone involved made sure the patient got the cells needed – to give them hope. That resonated with me because it represents the “what” and the “why” that drives the day-to-day work of everyone who works at Vor (we call ourselves Voracians).

A week out from the donation, I was back to 100 percent. If I didn’t have photographic evidence that I had done it, I would have never known that I had undergone an eight-hour donor process.

At this point, my cells have been infused into the patient and are giving this man a chance at a healthy, disease-free immune system. I expect to get an update on his condition in nine months, but I think about him most days. I don’t dwell too long, just a moment or two of wishful reflection hoping that he is doing well. I also reflect on what the experience of donating was like, and I strongly encourage others to consider doing the same. It’s a fact, those cells in your body could be the very thing someone else needs to have a fighting chance to survive.

Full disclosure, this is not a pain-free process. It also involves a great deal of investment of your time, but believe me, it is worth the pain and it worth the time. If you haven’t signed up to be on the national bone marrow registry, please consider doing so. If you have signed up and you get the call that you have matched with someone, please say “yes” and give them hope. Trust me, you will never regret your decision. I am still eligible to donate one more time and am anxiously waiting for that call!