Bone marrow: be someone’s match

Unfortunately many people still believe that donating bone marrow means doctors will need to drill into your bones. The reality is the donation process requires no surgery, no general anaesthetic and no drilling. 

South African patients who have leukaemia or other blood disorders need a life-saving stem cell transplant and rely on the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) to find a match. 

“The challenges faced in growing the SABMR lies in the sentence itself,” says Alana James, CEO of the Sunflower Fund. “It’s called ‘The South African Bone Marrow’ registry, so when people see the word ‘bone marrow’ they go ‘Oh no I can’t do that, it will hurt!’”

Understanding bone marrow

Bone marrow is found inside your bones – it’s a soft, fatty tissue that helps with the production of red blood cells (to carry oxygen), white blood cells (to find infection) and platelets (to prevent bleeding). Some of the cells in the bone marrow can be pushed into the blood stream, where it can be collected and then used to help someone in need of a donation.  

Real-life hero

Carey Symons, a blood stem cell donor and long-time support of The Sunflower Fund, was on the registry for 10 years before she was called to help a leukaemia patient.

“The stats of a perfect match are 1 in 100 000 so you can only imagine my joy in being that 1 in 100 000 and that I was able to contribute to giving someone a second chance.”

She travelled from Durban to Mediclinic Constantiaberg in Cape Town where she had a series of painless Neupogen injections that helped stimulate the production and release of blood stem cells. 

Three days of injections later she was able to begin the donation process. 

1. Two needles (similar to those used when you donate blood) were inserted in each arm. 
2. Blood was drawn from one arm and circulated through a cell-separator machine.
3. Her stem cells were collected and the remaining blood was returned through the other arm. 

Typically, the donation process takes between four and six hours. 

“I realised that the day I signed as a donor, I was only hoping to make a difference. I will never know whose life I made a difference to, and part of that mystery excites me. It’s a blessing to give without knowing and without being thanked.”

Harsh reality

There are just under 74 000 donors on the registry, but at least 400 000 are needed. 

“We definitely still have a mountain to climb and are committedly doing so. Registering as a donor on the SABMR is a simple process and can be very rewarding,” says James. “You could be someone’s perfect match.”

crowd, people

                                    There is a 1 in 100 000 chance of being a match. (Image: iStock)

Be someone’s 1 in 100 000

Signing up to be a donor is simple - if you do meet the criteria, you will receive a reference number and form to fill out. Next, you’ll go to your nearest Donor Recruitment Clinic where they’ll take two test tubes of blood. 

Your blood is analysed and put onto the national database. Unfortunately the tissue typing test is expensive (it costs R2 500) but you can make a donation to help free up their funds. 

You’ll receive your donor card in six to eight weeks, and if you’re ever a match for a patient, you will be called. 

Read more:

CT teen desperately needs bone marrow transplant

URGENT need for more bone marrow donors in SA

Needed: Black bone marrow donors

Read more on: cancer leukemia

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