When 56-year-old Sheldon Sims learned his older brother Alan needed a bone marrow transplant (BMT), he knew he wanted to become a donor.
“We have a tight bond,” says Sheldon.
Donors are typically back to 100% within a couple weeks.
In 2016, Alan was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of cancer that causes abnormal blood cells in the bone marrow.
Despite a steady routine of blood transfusions, Alan’s health was declining. He needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.
What is bone marrow?
Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside the bones that makes stem cells. These stem cells become blood cells:
- Red blood cells, which carry oxygen
- White blood cells, which fight infection
- Platelets, which help control bleeding
“When you donate bone marrow, you’re also giving immune cells that provide the potential for a cure,” explains Dr. Ronald L. Paquette, an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai.
Bone marrow transplant explained
Whether you’re joining the donor registry or donating for a loved one or family member, the first step is a physical exam to ensure donating marrow is safe for you.
People who have heart disease, sleep apnea, and certain autoimmune conditions may not be eligible to donate.
Once you’re cleared to become a donor, you’ll get a simple blood test to determine whether immune proteins on the surface of your blood cells are compatible with a recipient’s.
If you’re a match, you’ll undergo further testing to make sure you don’t have any conditions or infectious diseases that could be passed to the recipient.
On transplant day, donors arrive at the hospital and are put under general anesthesia. During the procedure, the donor is on their stomach and bone marrow is retrieved from the back part of the pelvis.
Two physicians draw out the bone marrow simultaneously—one on each side of the donor—through special needles. About 1-2 teaspoons of marrow is drawn out at a time.
“We do that over and over again until we retrieve the desired amount,” Dr. Paquette says. “There are 2 incisions that are less than a centimeter in length and don’t require stitches.”
The process takes about 2 hours from start to finish depending on the size of the recipient and the amount of marrow required.
Donors either spend the night in the hospital or go home the same day. In either case, donors are typically back to 100% within a couple weeks.
After the procedure, donors may have a little bruising and the area may be sore and tender to the touch.
“Some people say it’s like having a stiff back. Others say it feels like they fell on their backsides. But it’s usually not painful unless you put direct pressure on the area where the needles were inserted,” says Dr. Paquette.
A new chapter
In the weeks after transplant, Sheldon’s healthy bone marrow set up shop in Alan’s system and began making new blood and building a higher-functioning immune system.
Sheldon and Alan are both thriving.
“He has been able to regain his life,” says Sheldon. “He doesn’t need transfusions and he’s getting stronger every day.”