In Which I’m Scared and Then Greedy and Then Slightly Altruistic and Then Both Scared and Greedy

This is about donating bone marrow.

I’ve been really passionate about giving blood for a while, until I gave too often and got minor anemia (it wasn’t the sweet tea after all). I hope to get back into it someday.

For a while I thought that the next step in anatomical altruism was either donating platelets or donating bone marrow. Both seemed like a great way to save lives, but I was scared. Both seemed a lot more painful and uncomfortable than giving blood.

Then, two weeks ago I heard about this guy named Amit Gupta. Apparently he founded a startup called photojojo, and he’s well liked among tech entrepreneurs. He was diagnosed with acute leukemia about a month ago, and the internet went crazy to get the word out about his need for bone marrow.

I did nothing. I was still scared of the idea (I picture donating bone marrow to involve a large needle navigated into my pelvis by a gruff Germanic nurse with big hands, preventing me from walking or blogging for days afterwards).

And then Seth Godin got me. Seth is a bestselling author with a widely read blog, and he decided to give $10,000 to anyone who was a match for Amit and decided to give. Not only that, but he offered to profile the matching donor on his blog, which is read by a gazillion people a day.

So I decided to do it. I know, it’s pitiful to require an incentive to do the right thing, but that’s what it took to get me over the edge.

I almost backed out when filling out the cheek swab (face cheek, not butt cheek) application. It’s a bit intimidating. When you donate blood, you just have to assure the Red Cross that you didn’t have sex with Welsh sheep between 1992 and 2001. When you sign up to be a bone marrow donor, however, you have to pledge that if you’re a match for someone in need any time over the next 30 years, you will donate. It’s implied that if you refuse, that gruff Germanic nurse will hunt you down and shove that giant needle into your pelvis, even if you’re in the middle of a very important meeting at work.

That’s a big commitment. I don’t know where I’ll be in 30 years. I sure hope I’m not in a meeting.

I want to pretend that I was brave. But really I just wanted the Seth Godin blog exposure. So I completed the application, and the cheek swab was on its way.

And then I read the fine print about Amit Gupta.

Amit Gupta needs South Asian bone marrow. I am Irish, German, and Polish. None of which are remotely South Asian.

And then I read more fine print about being a bone marrow donor.

The donation website says that if you are selected as a match, it might take up to 30 hours the week of the donation to go through the entire process. 30 hours?! I know that another person’s life is worth way more than 30 hours. But that’s a lot of my time. I can save three lives with a half-hour blood donation!

So my combined fear and greed (for time) outweighed my greed for money and exposure, and I opted out of the bone marrow registry.

I know. I’m terrible. But at least I’m writing this blog post in the off chance that a South Asian reads it, wants to be a better person than me, and saves Amit Gupta’s life.

Have you ever donated bone marrow? Is it painful/time consuming/dangerous?

9 thoughts on “In Which I’m Scared and Then Greedy and Then Slightly Altruistic and Then Both Scared and Greedy”

  1. Dude, I NEED to donate some blood. I didn’t for a long time because I was pregnant and that’s just a recipe for anemia right there, but now I’m not pregnant, so I need to do it. My dilemma is that my local blood bank is open from like 9-2, and I work full time. COME ON, RED CROSS.

    • I’m glad you have such a yearning to give blood!

      The Red Cross does make it somewhat difficult to donate. Not only are the hours pretty tight, but they don’t accept walk-ins, which just seems silly to me. I learned this the hard way–one day I woke up and decided I wanted to donate that day, so I went in to give, and they told me I needed a reservation. What is this, that fancy wedding dress shop in Bridesmaids?!

  2. When I was a cancer patient some twenty-five years ago, I had my bone marrow harvested so that I would be able to use my own bone marrow if I ever needed it.

    I think people get confused about bone marrow tests which are incredibly painful and bone marrow harvest which is basically the same procedure done multiple times — but not painful at all because you’re sedated! The aftermath of the bone marrow harvest is no big deal — I recovered from the sedation by the next day and was left with some stiffness and bruising, a much easier recovery than a turned ankle or any number of other small injuries we receive in an active life.

    As I understand it, the risks are pretty limited to the ones they always tell you about when you’re sedated. I would say 30 hours is about right in the time that it would take. I’m pretty sure, though, that no one would expect you to do it more than once in a lifetime. It’s a bucket list thing like climbing Mt. McKinley, not a regular good habit like giving blood.

    I miss giving blood. They won’t take blood from people who had my type of cancer even though it’s probably fine — no one has done the studies to be absolutely certain. I had given over a gallon by the time I had cancer in my early twenties and it was always such a rush of good feeling. Next time you give blood, consider a few drops as given for me and thank you!

    • Joy–Thank you so much for your insight (and congrats on beating cancer!).

      The way you’ve phrased bone marrow makes it sound much better–instead of being 30 hours a week, it’s 30 hours for one week once in your life. That I can live with. My only concern would be if I have really awesome bone marrow that matches with a lot of people, but the odds of that are probably very low.

  3. Joy,
    I really appreciated your beautifully-phrased reply. For the sake of information, I would like to add that bone marrow matching can be independent of racial or ethnic background. Bone marrow type depends on the protein-based HLA markers on the surface of the cells of your immune system. A “match” is any donor with a similar enough HLA type that the recipient’s body (hopefully) won’t recognize it as a foreign invader.
    Although people who are more closely related to each other are more likely to be a match, we are all an inter-related human family in the grand scheme of things so anyone can potentially match with anyone. Perhaps, Jamey, you could reconsider doing something truly brave and beautiful (whether it ends up being for that South Asian guy or for someone else who is less well-known but equally in need). I’m registered.

  4. Hi Jamey,
    While it’s true that the HLA genes could POTENTIALLY match up with someone of South Asian descent, it is highly unlikely. Since the body recognizes and destroys anything it sees as ‘foreign’, you have to match at not just one, but several of these loci. And these genes are some of (if not THE) most variable in our genome, which is why it can be so difficult to find matches. Especially if the pathogen/parasite communities each population has been challenged with in prior centuries differ (ok, I can’t say I’ve looked to see if this has been taken beyond theory in humans, but I could look it up for you if you want!).

    That being said, you never know – maybe some other high-profile European mutt dying of leukemia sees the success (I hope) of this strategy and does the same…

    It’s a big commitment, but I think if you are a match for someone – even if they have no fame to offer you – you could write about it and maybe really earn the exposure you want. : ) Your writing certainly is enjoyable to read, even without altruistic corporeal sacrifices!

    • Jessie–Thanks for your insightful reply. So maybe there is a very slight chance I could help Amit.

      But yes, in the end when I made the decision yesterday to send in my samples, it wasn’t about exposure or money or anything like that. It was about the chance to save someone’s life. Which even in itself isn’t truly altruistic, but I’m okay with that, and I’m sure they will be too. 🙂

      • 😉 ask any population biologist and they’ll tell you nothing is ever truly altruistic. so now you can rest assured that a) you may help someone! and b) your selfish twinge of good will is perfectly natural! cheers to you, and it’s inspiring. i never have considered it, but i might register too.


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