Written by Brian Gray
My decision and motivation to become a bone marrow stem cell donor has a very personal background.
My daughter Logan was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was only 3 years old. While it was a shock and is something that we will live with always, it opened mine and my family’s eyes to the realities of what others in a similar or much worse situation than ours are going through. A world that one may not ordinarily be aware of or that we choose to pretend does not exist.
We quickly learnt that there is a huge need for more bone marrow stem cell donors here in South Africa and how badly the odds are stacked against someone waiting for a suitable donor, those being 1:100 000. We have had firsthand experience of patients that tragically have not beaten these odds.
We registered and joined the SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) through The Sunflower Fund through an organized a donor drive. This was an easy decision and commitment to make, especially due to the position we were in and in the hope that we would be a match for someone and in some way give back after the wonderful treatment, love and support that my daughter has and continues to receive.
I received the call from the South African Bone Marrow Registry soon afterwards to undergo further testing, but still knew that the odds were still short that I would be a match. After a couple of months, I again received a call to go for another round of tests and I realized that this could be a possibility. After an agonising wait of a further month, I was informed I was a match for someone.
It was really an unbelievable thing to hear and I just felt blessed to be in this position. I truly believe that for the people, who are on this registry, the commitment to become a donor has already been made and this is something that we hope will happen.
There were a number of medical checks and physicals to undertake before the big date and it was during this time that I started to realise the responsibility that someone in my position has. It was explained to me that the patient was starting their conditioning for their bone marrow transplant, which involves killing off their healthy cells first, which obviously has huge risks and also means that there is no turning back for either party.
In the week leading up to day, I had to have a series of growth factor hormone (G–CSF) injections at the hospital which involved some travelling and early starts in the morning and after work, but this is really not a big deal when dealing with something so significant, and in a way, just seemed to make it more meaningful. These hormones increase the production of stem cells in the bone marrow. These excess stem cells move into the blood stream and from there are collected via a cell separator machine, much like donating platelets or a blood transfusion. There was no cost involved for me at all.
All this time, I was in constant contact with the SABMR who really guided me through every step of the way and were always available to answer any query that I had.
I was admitted to hospital the night before the procedure and the collection itself started early the next morning. There really was not much pain at all involved in the actual collection, just a line put into each arm. All in all the procedure took around seven hours, which actually went by very quickly and without any pain or stress – all I really had to do was lie there and watch the machine separate the stem cells from my blood, and fill a small bag. The bag of stem cells were then taken off to be tested to see if there are sufficient stem cells for the transplant and then taken off immediately to the patient for their bone marrow stem cell transplant. (In my case they went straight onto a flight, but due to patient/donor confidentiality I was not told exactly where).
Afterwards, all one can do is hope that the recipient’s transplant went well and you have given someone a chance at life. I feel really grateful to have been able to do this and all I can say to anyone considering joining the registry is DO IT NOW – it is a commitment, but that commitment is what makes it all the more rewarding.
I would like to challenge anyone reading this who has supported The Sunflower Fund in any way or even those who haven’t, to take the extra step and get registered – you could be saving a life sooner than you think. Every person who joins is making the odds better for thousands of people throughout South Africa and the world.
To the staff at The Sunflower Fund and the SABMR – thanks for all the work you guys are doing; to The Sunflower Fund for raising the funds necessary to pay for the tissue typing costs, recruiting donors onto the registry and the SABMR for finding matches and facilitating these life-saving interventions.
In order for The Sunflower Fund to raise the funds to pay for the tissue typing costs of R2000 for each new donor that registers, they have organized fundraising events and campaigns throughout South Africa. One of these campaigns is coming up on the 12th October. It’s The Sunflower Fund National Bandana Day. Make sure you go down to your nearest Pick n Pay or contact your local Round Table between 15th August and 15th October to purchase your bandana for only R20 and wear it on the 12th October to show your solidarity towards the brave fight that these patients face daily.
There are obviously big challenges ahead as the South African Bone Marrow Registry with 65 000 donors is relatively small compared to the American Bone Marrow registry of 4 Million donors, but this undertaking is clearly in very capable hands.
To everyone who is waiting for a match – no-one can pretend to know how you are feeling, but stay strong and positive, perhaps the next person added to the registry is the match for you.
If you would like to find out more about becoming a bone marrow stem cell donor call The Sunflower fund toll free number 0800 12 10 82 or visit www.sunflowerfund.org.za. All it takes to register as a bone marrow stem cell donor is a call to that number and two test tubes of blood. Share a Little and Save a Life.