Perhaps you heard the news recently about Susie Rabaca, a mom currently expecting twins who is also battling cancer. She has AML, an aggressive type of blood cancer, and was in desperate search of a genetic match for a bone marrow transplant. Her story went viral, inspiring thousands of people to get tested through Be the Match. She’s also been informed that a match has been found!
Often times we talk about giving back around the holidays. While donations, both in gift and monetary form, are important to charities doing good in our communities, why not use it as a catalyst to give a (literal) piece of yourself to someone? You could save someone’s life.
Register to Be a Bone Marrow Donor
Susie’s story has inspired over 50,000 people so far to sign up as possible bone marrow donors. I know some people may think it will be invasive, it’s not. To be on the registry, that is, to have your genetic profile analyzed and put in a database as a POTENTIAL donor, it only takes a simple buccal swab. Basically, you rub a glorified Q-tip in your mouth. That’s it.
If you are matched with a recipient in need, bone marrow donation is not as scary or as painful as it once was. Anesthesia is used during removal and almost all donors experience minimal side effects. Not to mention, you are giving someone a chance at life.
Why We Need More Genetic Diversity in the Registry
Susie’s story of finding it difficult to locate a match is partially due to her unique genetic profile. She is mixed race, being Latina and Caucasian. The unfortunate reality of many mixed race patients looking for a bone marrow match is that they are harder to find within current registry participants.
The genetics behind matching people for bone marrow transplants (and organ transplants for that matter) comes down to HLAs, which stand for Human Leukocyte Antigens. These genes make specific proteins that regulate the immune system. If someone receives bone marrow that is not compatible, the new cells can attack the recipient’s cells in a condition that is called Graft-versus-host disease.
Since you receive half of your HLAs from your mother and half from your father, your profile is a hybrid of the two. Therefore your HLA combination is likely to match others with a similar ethnic background. As it stands now, there are very few mixed race profiles at all on the registry. The majority of people currently in the system are Caucasian. Long story short, we need to get more people from ethnically diverse backgrounds on the registry as potential donors.
There is a fantastic documentary called Mixed Match that extensively and coherently covers this topic. I HIGHLY recommend it. If you have Amazon Prime (and let’s face it, most of us do, especially around the holidays) it is currently FREE to stream. Go watch it now and sign up to be a potential donor at Be the Match!
You can give blood through the Red Cross. In addition to their stand-alone facilities, the Red Cross has on-going blood drives via their mobile blood donor units. Blood is constantly needed for patients and because it has a shelf life of a little over a month. Your donation could help patients with conditions like sickle cell anemia, a trauma victim, a postpartum mother, the need is always there. YOU COULD LITERALLY END UP HELPING TO SAVE A BABY!
Antigens in your blood determine your blood type. Most people are familiar with the ABO system. Depending on which antigens are present on your red blood cells, you fall into one of the 4 main categories.
- A blood has A antigens
- B blood has B antigens
- AB blood has both A and B antigens
- O blood has neither A or B antigens
Someone with A blood cannot receive B blood because the antigens would conflict, leading to a potentially life-threatening reaction. O blood is considered the universal donor since it does not have antigens and can, therefore, be given to all blood types.
A protein in the blood, called Rh factor, is either present (+) or absent(-). This accounts for the positive and negative designations in the ABO system. Those with +Rh can receive either (+) or (-) blood, while those with -Rh must receive (-) blood to prevent an immune response.
There are numerous other antigens that lead to blood types beyond the basics mentioned, but those are considered exceptionally rare.
A common misconception many people have is that they don’t need to donate blood until a time of crisis. Due to the rigorous testing blood donations go through (for antigens and bloodborne diseases), those units will not be immediately available to help. It will, however, help build the supply back up if it is depleted due to a crisis. The biggest takeaway here is that blood donations are needed ALL THE TIME!
Other Blood Components
Why limit ourselves to just blood? Depending on your eligibility, you can also donate:
- Double Red Units
You can learn about the various parts that make up blood here.
Donate Umbilical Cord Blood
So many expectant mothers I meet have no idea that umbilical cord blood donation is a thing. It’s also super easy and painless. The umbilical cord serves as the blood connection between mother and baby. It has lots of cells that can form the various aspects of blood and can help blood cancer patients. The blood is removed from the umbilical cord after your baby is born and will not affect your delivery! How awesome is that?
Learn if you can donate here. Please note that you need to set-up your plan beforehand (between your 28th-34th week of pregnancy). See if your delivering hospital participates and let your provider know of your donation intent.
This was something I desperately wanted to set up when I was pregnant with both of my children since their genetic profile is likely to be underrepresented in the Be the Match registry (they are half-Chinese and half-Caucasian). Unfortunately, Oregon does not have hospitals that offer this life-saving service, at least not yet.
Be a Designated Organ Donor or Tissue Donor
While the holiday season may not be the time of year you’d like to think of organ donation, it’s still something to consider. I’m in the camp of “I can’t take them with me so somebody else should get some use out of them”. Registering as an organ donor is pretty easy, usually done at the DMV or online, depending on your state.
What does it mean to be a registered organ donor? Simply put, if you die and you meet certain medical requirements, your organs (8 of them) can be used to help others. Tissue donation is a little less rigorous but you have the opportunity to help up to 75 people through your tissues such as bone, cornea, skin and heart valves, just to name a few.
Have you ever donated of yourself before? Are there other ways that we can give a piece of ourselves to others? If you have an experience or idea, leave a comment below.