This post is a continuation of Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 1). Click the link to start there!
If my bone marrow donation felt like being carried on the shoulders of a Red Cross phlebotomist team, imagine me accidentally kicking one of them in the face and the whole team crashed to the ground in a mess of apple juice boxes and cookie crumbs. That should set the tone nicely for my white blood cell donation.
The bone marrow donation had been done in the SF Bay Area. I was now back at college, so the organization did a big shuffle and scheduled the new procedure to be done in LA, about two hours away from my college.
This time, when I went to the local blood donation center to get some samples drawn, I got yelled at for not drinking enough water beforehand. I cowered. “But the Red Cross phlebotomists gave me juice…”
To extract the cells, I’d have a needle in each arm. My blood would go out one arm, spin through a machine, and come back in my other one. It would take about four hours and I’d get to watch TV the whole time, so it sounded pretty easy peasy. I let my professors know. One even gave me a one-on-one makeup lecture so I didn’t fall behind.
So I could start the procedure at 7am sharp, the organization arranged a hotel room for the night before. I was used to having allergies, so my when my nose was runny earlier in the day, I didn’t think a thing of it. But as I started to drive, I started to feel bad. It wasn’t allergies. I was getting sick. I never got sick!
I frantically called the number they’d given me and explained the situation. The person on the other end asked me a lot of questions about the color of my snot. It was not a good snot color. She said to come down anyway. It was fine.
Relieved, I checked into my hotel and jumped on the bed a few times. It was the first time I’d stayed in a hotel by myself. After clicking out the lights, I stared at the closet door, realizing someone could have been in there the whole time, hiding and waiting for murder. I lifted my textbook over my head as I ripped open the closet door.
I am now much better at staying at hotel rooms by myself.
I was not an early bird, nor big on breakfast. The procedure was due to end at 11am, which was when I’d normally eat anyway, so I figured I’d wait and celebrate with a nice meal.
This time, the hospital was a lot less intimidating, knowing I didn’t even have to change out of my clothes for this procedure. I settled onto a bed holding my box of kleenex next to the one other patient in the place. They’d closed the curtains around the lady next to me, announcing she was, “all done!”
“Oh my! That WHOLE thing was in my arm?”
My straining to catch a glimpse of said needle was interrupted when a doctor appeared, frowning. His expression was not kidding around. “You told the intake nurse you have a cold?”
“Uh yeah? I called down yesterday. They said it was fine.”
“Who did you talk to?” From the look on the doctor’s face, that person was in huge trouble. This was a serious problem.
They tried to call the recipient’s doctors, but they couldn’t get a hold of them—something about them having closed and time differences (someone had already let it slip to me that the recipient lived in Germany) and having to track people down off-shift. We’d have to wait.
I kept yo-yoing between staring at my stupid kleenex box with horrendous guilt and wanting to pace around in defensive anger. I had called. I hadn’t meant to get sick. Oh god, was my cold really going to kill someone?
A nurse came on shift who didn’t join the huddle of tense whispers. He sat next to me and switched on the TV, making jokes about the available movie options. He confided that he was going to tell everyone I needed his strict supervision so he could ditch his job and watch movies too. My stomach unknotted for the first time in hours and I had never been more grateful for another human being in my life.
Finally, at around 1:30pm, Frowning Doctor walked up. They’d already “destroyed” the recipient’s immune system, so we had to do this now. Well, that sounded horrifying, so okay, let’s do this thing. Everyone left so a nurse I hadn’t met yet could hook me up.
The nurse held up the needle and I had the same reaction as the lady from earlier: Sweet baby Jesus, are you certain that’s not a joke needle ma’am?
The nurse started having trouble “threading it up” my vein. Frustrated, she wiggled it around, then took her free hand and began hitting the end of it to try to jam it up into my arm.
Another nurse sprinted over, jaw hanging open. “What are you doing????” She pushed the first nurse out of the way. “Are you okay?”
I flapped my free hand. “Yeah, yeah. Only, I should probably tell you that I feel a little weird…”
The nurse took one look at my face and ripped a pin out of the bed. The head of the bed slammed down to be fully horizontal, just as my breathing started to come in fast gasps.
Competent Nurse raced into a storage room, screaming orders. She was soon pressing ice packs on my wrist, neck, and legs. Across the room, some young guy in scrubs was looking through his brown lunch sack when someone viciously ripped it from his hands and dumped out the contents, missing the counter in her urgency. A pudding cup exploded across the floor at the poor guy’s feet and he let out a startled, “Wha?” probably thinking this was a petty hazing ritual.
His lunch bag was shoved over my nose and mouth and a nurse hovered over me, coaching me through slowing down my breathing, though it felt impossible to get control back over my lungs. My nurse buddy would later explain that when you hyperventilate, you breathe out carbon dioxide so fast, it messes up the balance in your body. The paper bag forced me to breathe some of it back in to restore the balance. So yeah, I may have skipped cultural anthropology class that day, but I got a rather hands on biology practicum. Don’t be jealous.
Once the crisis was over and the paper bag was removed, Frowning Doctor loomed at the end of the bed, arms crossed. “When did you last eat?”
In all the stress, I had completely forgotten about my 11am post-procedure breakfast plans.
Frowning Doctor shooed everyone away and took me down to the cafeteria. Miserably, I apologized and blew my nose. Frowning Doctor softened for a minute and bought me some food. “It’s been a long day.”
I am pretty certain we were both thinking this day was turning out a lot like that nurse’s pudding cup.
The next set up went without a hitch. The needle in my right arm rested against my vein, which would flutter uncomfortably for the next few hours as though a butterfly had been trapped inside my arm. My nurse buddy spent a lot of the time next to me, trying to cheer me up. I did my best to let myself be cheered up.
We were finally done around 7pm. Be The Match tried to book me another hotel for the night, which I absolutely should have taken, but I insisted on going home. I walked into the parking garage and finally turned my cellphone back on (there had been “no cellphones” notices glaring at me while I’d been inside and I didn’t have a text plan). I had about seven voicemails and a dozen missed calls from my mom. The voicemails got increasingly panicked. After I hadn’t responded to her for eight hours after my procedure was supposed to be done, she’d concluded that I’d been kidnapped by the recipient’s henchmen to be taken back to Germany and harvested for my marrow.
As I had spent the previous night attacking closet phantoms, this struck me as insane, but strangely logical.
Several months later, I was walking through campus when my Be The Match representative called me. She said they usually waited longer to talk to a donor about the outcome of a donation, but if I’d like to know, she’d tell me now. I braced myself and said I’d like to know.
My recipient did not survive. The representative explained that she’d been on the registry for a long time waiting for a match and she’d been very sick by the time I’d come along. The recipient and her family had known this would be a long shot, but they’d wanted to feel as though they’d done everything possible. They wanted to try.
And so, I’m glad I tried with them. People sometimes think that because this story didn’t have a happy ending, I must regret having signed up. I must regret the time and the discomfort and the involvement since it was all for nothing.
But I don’t think it was for nothing. The reality is, it was a few days from my life spent trying to help someone else. I was back on my feet less than a week after my bone marrow donation surgery, and that’s considered a longer-than-typical recovery time. I had to recover more from my cold than my white blood cell donation. Maybe all I gave was hope, but other people do save lives.
I’d never tell anyone they should register—it’s a highly personal choice. But I hope this story does defeat the idea that it would take a superhero or a saint to donate bone marrow.
In my case, it only took a clueless girl not wanting to look bad in front of her friends who was given a chance to step up.
Learn more about bone marrow, PBSC, or cord blood donation and other ways to support the National Marrow Donor Program at BeTheMatch.org. If you’re interested in registering, they’ll mail you a mouth swab kit for free.
If you’ve got questions, I’ll answer them as best I can from my experience. Just leave a comment below or head on over to the Contact page.