“There’s only a one in a ten thousand chance to be a marrow donor,” said the nurse inviting me to be a bone marrow donor during my first visit to the blood donation to give blood, “in any event, you can opt-out any time you want”. Although the gruesome scene of a thick needle piercing my spinal cord crept into my mind, I completed the registration form handed to me by the nurse to have my information registered with the Hong Kong Bone Marrow Donor Registry (“HKBMDR”) without much thinking. Two factors led to my rush decision. First, as a blood donor, I knew deep down that giving bone marrow (or blood-forming stem cells) is lifesaving. Another factor, which I suspect to be more dominating, is that the chance to be a donor is simply too remote, and I never expected the frightening image to become my reality.
Two years have since passed until a rainy summer day.
I was preparing for my upcoming exam together with my girlfriend, Agnes, who was a final-year medical student. Suddenly, my phone rang. Thinking it to be another call from a salesperson, I expect it to be short and uninteresting. To my surprise, the caller is a nurse from the Hong Kong Bone Marrow Donor Registry!
The nurse said with the kindest voice, “Hi Matthew, do you remember that you have registered as a donor with the HKBMDR? We want to notify you that there is a patient whose tissue types match with yours…”. “Thank you…I don’t think I have the time. Goodbye…” I answered as I ended the phone call in shock. All I could think about is a ghastly needle piercing through my spinal cord! Why would I have the “fortune” to be a donor?
“Who was that?” asked Agnes, who overheard my awkward response. Knowing that the identity of the caller, she first calmed me down and debunked my misconception. First, the needle would not be inserted into the donor’s spinal cord to collect the bone marrow. It would only be inserted into the donor’s pelvis. Moreover, the blood-forming stem cells required by the patient could be collected by an alternative means – “Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Donation.” Donors giving stem cells in such a way neither require anesthesia, nor do they have to experience a needle piercing their bone. Most importantly, the lives of those who require such stem cells are usually at stake, and have no luck in finding a family relative as a suitable donor.
Knowing that there is a patient in great need of help and the procedure is not as daunting as I (erroneously) imagined, I called the nurse again. I arranged to carry out the necessary physical examination and pre-donation procedure (including receiving Granulocyte Colony Stimulating Factor (“G-CSF”) injections each day for three days before the donation to mobilize the stem cells from the marrow into the bloodstream).
Three months had passed, and it was the day of donation. I was taken to a clean and beautifully decorated room in a hospital outpatient center. The nurses there carefully placed needles connected to tubing into each of my arms, which are no more terrifying than those during blood donation procedures. During the subsequent 5 to 6 hours, the nurses took great care of me as I witnessed my blood moving from a vein to one arm and passed through the tubing into a blood cell separator machine before returning to me. To me, the whole experience was like apheresis donation, except the duration was longer. Eventually, without much discomfort, I returned to my daily life routine the very next day.
One year after the donation day, I received a WhatsApp message from the nurse who took care of me. “The patient is in stable condition and is making a recovery gradually”. I smiled as I thank God for giving me this one in a ten thousand chance blessing.