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Vail health: Bone marrow donors needed

Melanie Wong
newsroom@vaildaily.com
VAIL CO, Colorado
Amanda Swanson
ALL |

COLORADO – Ever think that you could give a part of yourself, at no permanent cost, and save someone’s life?

For Christina Gutierrez, 38, that thought was what encouraged her to register for the national bone marrow registry. The Broomfield veterinarian said she had always regularly donated blood when she had the chance, and someone encouraged her to sign up for the bone marrow registry. Years later, she received a phone call from the registry — would she come in for further testing?

The need for bone marrow donors grows, experts say, with nearly 10,000 people each year diagnosed with life-threatening diseases in which a blood stem cell or bone marrow transplant is the best hope for treatment. The majority of patients needing a marrow transplant end up finding a marrow match from outside their family, either from a donor, or from an umbilical cord, which carries the same blood-producing cells, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.

Bone marrow transplant can be a life-saving treatment for people with leukemia, lymphoma and many other diseases. First, patients undergo treatment to destroy their diseased marrow. Then a donor’s healthy blood-forming cells are given directly into the patient’s bloodstream, where they can begin to function and multiply.

To join the bone marrow registry, potential donors simply need to provide a cheek-swab tissue sample, which can be done in-person at a registry drive or by mail with a swab kit that can be ordered online. The samples are analyzed and entered into the registry, a process that costs about $100. To register, potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60, in general good health, and live in the United States.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, even though there are 9 million people in the registry, many patients in need of donations still cannot find a genetic match. There is especially a need for donors with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, since patients are more likely to match with someone from their own ethnicity, said Patty Owens, executive director of the Bonfils Colorado Marrow Donor Program.

If a registry member may be a potential match, they undergo further testing to determine if their marrow is a close enough match for the patient. If they are, the donation can be made in two ways, as determined by the donor’s physician. About 75 percent of donors give by a process called peripheral blood cell donation – the blood is taken out via needles from one arm, a machine separates the cells needed for a transplant, and the blood is returned into the other arm.

The process takes about 5 hours and is much like donating blood. The advantage is that no anesthesia is needed and recovery time is quicker, Owens said.

The other 25 percent of donors give by undergoing a minor surgical procedure — the donor is put under anesthesia and the bone marrow liquid is extracted from the pelvic bones by needles. In both cases, the marrow replaces itself in four to six weeks.

Gutierrez’s donation was made through surgery, and the mother of two said there was never a question in her mind as to whether or not to go through with the donation.

The registry had called, saying she was a possible match for someone in another country. The recipient would be a four-year-old boy.

“My daughter was four at the time, and I just started crying,” Gutierrez said. “I said I would do whatever extra testing they wanted right away. If I could help someone, that’s a no brainer for me.”

Owens said one of the biggest misconceptions about marrow donation is “about how horribly painful it is.”

“It’s really quite tolerable,” she said. “There is some discomfort, and there’s a time factor, but nothing really huge. That’s not really the issue, anyway.”

For Gutierrez, the entire procedure required a few hours in the hospital, and she was back at home the same day and recovering with some ibuprofen the next day. She was ready to go back to work within the week, and in three to four weeks was back to doing athletic activities as she did before.

“I won’t say it didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t that bad,” she said of the experience. “It feels like taking a hard fall on the ice on your tailbones. There was some pain, but I just didn’t care, because it’s for a much higher purpose.”

Later, she found out the boy who received her donation did not live, but she says she feels extremely lucky that she was a match for him, and that she was able to give him that chance.

Doctors look for a donor who matches their patient by looking at their human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type, or protein markers that are found on most cells in the body. The markers are a way for the immune system to recognize which cells belong in the body and which do not — for a match, at least five out of six markers must match. For umbilical cords, only four of the marker must match.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could be so lucky,” Gutierrez said. “If my child needed this, I’d want someone else to do what I did. Imagine if you or someone you loved needed it. I feel tremendously honored to be able to do this.”


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