Why I chose to be a living donor

I wasn't old enough to donate blood until my senior year of high school, and so for about two years I got to watch my classmates head off to the gym and return with bandaged arms, pleased with themselves for donating a pint of blood that might save someone's life. When I finally turned 16 years old (the minimum age to donate blood), I learned you had to be 110 lbs--a weight I've still yet to reach. So, I resigned myself to only being a donor at death, through organ donation. I didn't even sign up to be an organ donor until after college when my uncle had cirrhosis of the liver, and I became a witness to how long individuals sometimes wait for the match that can save their lives. But recently, I was introduced to the concept of being a living donor. In retrospect, it makes sense--I've heard of people donating their kidneys or lungs while alive and well. But the reality of being a living donor didn't click for me until I began working on the Fall issue's People Report. Highlighted is 11-year-old Shannon Tavarez, who is in need of a bone marrow transplant in order to survive her diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. After kidneys, bone marrow transplants are the most common among living donors. Thousands have signed up on the Be the Match registry since word spread about Tavarez and other cancer patients like her. And while there are many myths associated with it, signing up to be a bone marrow donor is really very simple--no needles, just a cheek swab and a health questionnaire. But that doesn't mean the decision to become a living donor should be taken lightly--it's definitely a different ballpark than donating blood. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, last year almost 5,000 bone marrow transplants were performed in the U.S. But not everyone who needs a match gets one; currently only 4 out of 10 patients find a matching donor. The donor and recipient have to be close genetic matches (based on human leukocyte antigens)--a 25 percent chance among relatives. In about 70 percent of patients, a non-family donor is needed. For unrelated donors, finding a match is highly reliant on the donor and recipient having the same ethnic and racial background. For Caucasians, the chances of finding a match are more than 90 percent. For blacks, Hispanics, and most Asians, the chances drop to around 60 percent. Part of the reason for this is that minorities make up a small percentage of the donor registry: Latinos, 10 percent and blacks, 8 percent, in the Be the Match registry. And the odds get even smaller if you're of mixed heritage like Tavarez. I never looked into being a bone marrow donor because I was under the impression that it was an excruciating process (what can I say, I watch a lot of House). But honestly, about 75 percent of transplants are peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) donations, which is a nonsurgical procedure where your blood-forming cells are harvested for transplantation. And even in the other type of donation (bone marrow donation) which is surgical, you're put to sleep while doctors extract liquid marrow from your pelvic bone; the most you'd feel afterwards is a few days of soreness. Becoming a living donor is something I didn't even consider, but once I understood the need it's something I didn't think twice about. In less time than it took me to write this blog, I registered for the National Marrow Donor Program and am eagerly waiting for my swab kit to come in the mail. (You can also register at a local donor center, or while not as common as blood drives, at bone marrow donor drives. See www.getswabbed.com and www.marrow.org for more info.)I plan to encourage my family and friends to consider registering, too. Will you join me?