Health It's Just A Cheek Swab

Part 3: How Do You Say No When You Can Save Someone’s Life?

Ana and Sara, true to Regina’s word, called me at 10AM sharp on Wednesday, five days after the initial contact by Gail. My husband was in the car and for the first part of the conversation he listened on the bluetooth. Ana and Sara began by discussing the details of the different types of donation (traditional bone marrow donation and peripheral stem cell), spending more time on the procedure being requested by my recipient’s medical team (In my mind, he was already “my” recipient. Later, I would start referring to him as “Cousin Bob”. I developed a theory that of course we are somehow related. We are family, especially now, and are cousins of some sort. In any event, we now have a connection and a truly physical bond, whether we ever meet or not.). It was during this conversation that I first heard that a center in Virginia was being requested as the donation site, although if I did not agree to travel, I could donate somewhere closer, say at Columbia Hospital in Manhattan. The important part it seemed, was that I agree to the donation. The location was not as big of a deal. As it turns out, being Zengirl, I didn’t particularly care where the donation took place. If there is a whole team of doctors that have decided that my old cells (oh yes, this was also the conversation where I discovered I am “older than ideal” for donation but still acceptable…hello ego blow) could help someone, I would trust that team to decide the best place to collect those cells.

The first type of donation, traditional bone marrow, would involve going to a hospital and general anesthesia for about a half hour procedure during which time the bone marrow (where stem cells are produced) is extracted by needle from my hips as I lay on my stomach. Yes, there is some discomfort after, and a small dressing (band aid sized) on each hip. As I understood it, most if not all donors walk out just fine after this out patient procedure. The second type was where our focus was, as that was what was being requested. Peripheral stem cell collection is a process where the donor (in this case me) is hooked up to an apheresis machine (the same machine used when someone donates platelets). I would be connected to the machine with a needle in each arm. Blood is taken from one vein and is circulated through the machine which separates the stem cells and returns the remaining blood and blood product to my body through another needle inserted into my other arm. In order to make sure I have enough cells to give, I would be taking a medication to increase my body’s production of stem cells. The recipient’s medical team would request a certain amount and the machine would run until I was able to provide it, usually several hours. If for some reason I was not able to tolerate the medication or if I was not able to generate enough stem cells, the bone marrow procedure would be done. However, those are very rare and unlikely occurrences. I felt pretty sure after this explanation that this entire thing was really no big deal for me, the donor. My only question was more of an unanswerable one…why doesn’t everyone donate who can?

Once I said “Sure, that’s fine” to the suggestion of Virginia as the location of the collection and “No, not really” to the 500th “Do you have any questions? Any questions AT ALL?” Ana said that the medical team was requesting January 16, 2015 as the collection date based on factors relating to my recipient’s condition and his health and that this timeline was unusually fast. I said, once again, “Sure, that’s fine.” Ana and Sara explained that I had to fill out and send back some consents and forms that were in the packet I had received that morning. This was when I first heard about Neupogen and the injections I would receive for 5 days leading up to and the day of the donation. I said ok to that too. They either thought I was very agreeable, or maybe not that bright (some days it could go either way, depending upon how much coffee I have had). In reality, there were just no deal breakers. There was no situation I could think of that would prevent me from saying yes.

Ana asked me when I would be available for my full physical, and I told her I could make myself available whenever she wanted, assuming of course that the physical would take place somewhere near my house as the blood test had. When she suggested Monday, December 22 I said (you know it’s coming…) “Sure, that’s fine.” I am not sure, but I think Ana and Sara were kind of incredulous. I don’t blame them, now that I have spoken to other people and heard how long and difficult the process of recruiting donors can be.

The surprise came when Ana said she would start working on the flight information and send me the details after I send the consents and questionnaire back. Wait. What? Flight? Where was I going? Perhaps Ana sensed my confusion because she clarified that the physical had to take place in the same facility as the collection, in this case, the Apheresis Center in Virginia. OH. Well ok then. That’s fine.

By this point, I was in my office, still on the phone. I filled out the paperwork, consents and all, and faxed it back. It is notable (to me) that this was the first time I answered the questions that I would be answering over and over and over again during the course of the next several weeks. Included in these questions were the typical Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you take medications? Do you have allergies? (No. Not often. Yes. Yes.) Also included were the less typical (to me) Do you do drugs? Have you had any piercings recently? Have you been to Africa in the last 6 months? Have you been to Europe in the last year? Have you traveled outside the US in the recent past? Have you had any sexual parter who may have had a sexual partner who may have been exposed to HIV? (No. No. No. No. No. No.)

Ana now had my questionnaire, consents and all. She asked me a few more times if I had any questions (still no), and said she’d call me when the medical team had reviewed my answers.

Reviewed my answers. Like a test. I have always done well on tests. I sat back to wait.

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About the author

Alyssa Gilbert

Alyssa Gilbert

Alyssa lives in the Five Towns with her husband, four kids, 2 dogs and a cat. She loves all things zen and yoga and has just finished school to become a PT.

Alyssa encourages everyone to get their cheeks swabbed and potentially save another's life. For more info, please visit

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