Signing up to save a life takes less than five minutes and only a small bit of saliva.
Be The Match, a nonprofit run by the National Marrow Donor Program, matches patients with blood diseases with bone marrow donors. Over 100,000 lives have been saved by donors who simply swabbed their cheeks to join the registry.
Be The Match has more than 22 million volunteers who have sent in samples and are waiting to be matched with a patient. Matching requires identical human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which is more specific than blood types. If the HLAs do not match, the patient’s body will reject the donated marrow.
HLAs are based on genes, and because genetic type is inherited, patients are more likely to match with someone of the same ethnicity.
Because of this, Be The Match is currently searching for more donors who are Black, Alaskan, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latino, and multiracial.
Gender and sexuality do not affect the eligibility of a donor.
Guidelines request that donors are between the ages of 18 and 44, to protect the safety of both donor and patient.
Many people believe that donating bone marrow is incredibly painful because of the portrayal in TV shows and movies.
However, donors report “discomfort,” not pain, and say it is worth it in order to help save a life.
In fact, 79% of donations are peripheral blood stem cells, which does not require surgery at all. Peripheral blood stem cells are the cells found in circulating blood, rather than the bone marrow itself. They are collected via a needle, similar to an ordinary blood donation.
While no medical procedure is completely risk-free, donating blood stem cells is very safe. Only 1 to 5% of a donor’s marrow is needed to save a patient’s life, and the immune system of the donor stays strong and recovers completely in 4 to 6 weeks.
All expenses for the donor, such as travel, meals, and hotels, are covered by Be The Match, so it’s completely free. The registry also helps patients cover the costs of transplants.
Be The Match offers more than just life-saving donations.
Their services include telephone counseling and one-on-one support, support groups and telephone workshops, caregiver support, tips for talking with a healthcare team, help finding clinical trials for blood cancers and blood disorders, educational materials, information and support in many languages.
They also conduct research to lead to better donor matching, faster transplants, and treatment of even more diseases. Their global transplant network includes over 467 centers worldwide.
Individuals interested in joining can sign up online to be sent a kit designed to collect cells by swabbing inside cheeks with a standard cotton swab. If the initial test shows a positive match, more testing is conducted to ensure the transplant will go smoothly.
Only about 8% of members who complete additional testing will go on to donate, so most volunteers will not be contacted.
In 2019, 6,553 patients received transplants due to Be The Match’s work.
One transplant recipient’s story on the organization’s website refers to donations as, “a small way to have [a] big impact on someone’s life.”
She finished by saying, “For whoever you’re saving, you’re saving their entire world.”