Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 1)

campus be the matchWhen I signed up for the bone marrow donation registry in my freshman year of college, I wish I could say I did so with the noble passion to save lives. The truth is, I started following a group of girls from my dorms before I knew where they were going, then felt I couldn’t ditch out without seeming like a jerk. A pamphlet got me nervous about what I was signing up for. Surgery? For a stranger?

As I was getting my blood sample taken (they’ve since upgraded to a simple cheek swab), I quietly expressed doubt to the phlebotomist.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “the chances are so slim of getting called, if you ever do, you’ll be 80 and too old to do it.”

All the way back, we giggled over cartoon drawings of what looked like a doctor drilling through a patient’s butt cheeks. Yeah, thank god I’d never actually have to go through with that. 

Less than three months later, I got an envelope in the mail.

I was a match. I wasn’t 80. 

But that letter represented a real person out there in a terrible situation. What if it had been my mom, or me, or a friend? I know how desperate I’d feel.

The first thing my roommate said when I told her I was doing it was, “You’re getting the butt surgery??”

You know, in case I was feeling too much like a sexy hero.

BTM_MythsFacts_3From there, we did a lot of medical testing to ensure I really was a good match and that I was healthy enough to be a good donor. In preparation for the surgery, I went to a Red Cross blood donation center. Apparently, it’s helpful to have your own blood on hand during a surgery so they can give it back to you to replace any that’s lost. To do this, they take more than in a normal donation, and because I’m rather small, the staff was certain I was going to pass out on them. The only patient in the clinic, the staff pushed apple juice boxes and cookies at me like I was being fattened up for a pie. The blood draw went smoothly and when it was done, they surrounded me with more juice and wouldn’t allow me to even sit up as though they were the loyal servants of a queen, aged 6. (“More juice and cookies, I say! And fetch me a crayon box!”)

I broke the news to them that I really did have to get up because I’d drunk more than my weight in juice and had to go to the bathroom. They offered me a bed pan. I looked to the floor to ceiling windows right next me. A child skipped by, looking in. I declined the offer. My entourage of about five women held my arms during the walk, then stationed themselves in and out of the bathroom, ready to defend my privacy against the zero other people in the clinic (I was not allowed to close the stall door) or to rush in the second I pitched sideways.

At one point, the front door chimed and a man said, “Is this where we give bloo—”

“Sir, we are handling a situation right now!” one staffer half-screamed.

When the man watched me emerge, admittedly wobbly at that point, with the entire staff of the clinic shoving snacks and juice at me, I wonder if he thought I was famous.

Sorry sir, not all of us can be donation celebrities. 

2b-be_the_match-3_ways_to_donate_marrowThe only time I got nervous throughout the entire process was right before going into surgery. To calm myself, I summoned my deepest level of nerd meditation and recalled a fan fiction story I’d once read where Harry Potter had bone marrow surgery and nearly exploded with magic. In my anxious state, it made sense that if a fictional wizard in a fan’s story could do this, surely it was all going to be fine.  

When I came to, my mom, face tense with worry, held up a cute stuffed pink lamb she’d gotten me from the gift store. I could tell this whole thing had been harder on her than me.

An orderly tested my blood. “Ah, it’s a nice, rich red.”

Groggily, I muttered, “At least it’s not green anymore.”

The orderly looked sympathetically at my mom. “She’s still delirious from the anesthesia.”

My mom gave me a knowing look that read, If only we could blame your sense of humor on drugs.

I’ve heard other donors talk about going back to work the next day. I, however, am very sensitive to painkillers and spent the next couple days sleeping and comfortably hallucinating about helicopters. Within a week, though, I moved myself back down to college in a car filled to the brim. Insisting I did not need help with that move may have not been my smartest call, but I did it. A few weeks later, even the bruised feeling in my lower back was gone.

When the lab I worked in found out what I’d done, they put my name up on the white board of the lab for, “saving a life.”

…They then violently erased it when I said I didn’t find Tom Cruise attractive.

“But I saved a life!” I pouted.

“And you have no taste,” said my lab director. It was a unique managerial style.

In actuality, none of us knew if I had saved a life. I’d explained when my name went up that the organization wouldn’t be telling me the outcome for one to two years. But I was so happy I’d done it. My director sent out an email to the lab titled, “Brandi is a H-E-R-O,” and I admit, it made me feel proud.

A few months later, however, the organization got in touch with me. My recipient was not doing well. I was surprised. All the advertising I’d seen was about saving lives and it hadn’t really occurred to me that my donation might not work, even though they’d tried to explain that was a possibility.

Prefacing everything with the acknowledgement that I had already done more than enough, they asked if I’d be willing to give white blood cells. I agreed without hesitation, now feeling less like this was some feat of bravery and more aware that someone out there had heard this same news and had to be scared. I asked them to send me the information right away.

As this is a long story, I’ll break here. Stay tuned for part two…

how marrow donation works_960x540px_v2

While my experience is with bone marrow donation, many people donate through a non-surgical process called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation. You can learn more about either process and hear other people recount their experiences at

If you have questions about the bone marrow donation process, don’t hesitate to ask! I can only speak from my own experience, but I’m happy to share what I can. I’d also love to hear your stories.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy Apartment Horror Stories, Part One: Santa Barbara and the Microwave and Petty Crime and Disco: An Ode to Mariah.

3 thoughts on “Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 2) – BRANDILYN GILBERT

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