“The only gift is a portion of thyself.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
February 14th is National Donor Day, a day to educate folks about the “five points of life”—organ, tissue, marrow, platelets, and blood donation—,to encourage people to become donors, to celebrate those who have made that commitment, and who have already become donors. It is also a day to recognize those who are donation recipients, as well as those who are still waiting for a matching and willing donor and those who did not receive a donation in time. The official observance was established in 1998 by the Saturn Corporation and partners from the United Automobile Workers Union—in conjunction with the US Department of Health and Human Services, and other non-profit health organizations.
Organ, tissue, bone marrow, platelet, and blood donations save lives every day, but some myths and misinformation still persist around many donation procedures and policies, which has the unfortunate effect of deterring some potential donors. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are well over 116,000 people currently on the list for an organ transplant. The vast majority of these people are waiting for a kidney transplant, which can be given by a living donor. There are actually several organs that can be donated by a living donor, with kidneys and livers being the most common. Though not without risk, living donation—and transplantation procedures, generally—is a medically accepted and increasingly safe and successful treatment options in thousands upon thousands of cases.
Among those gifts of life that can be given by a living donor are, of course, blood, platelets, and bone marrow. Blood donation is a very safe, low-risk procedure—the adverse effects of which are usually just a touch of fatigue, some bruising, and some soreness—that can save the lives of those experiencing an emergent medical trauma, patients undergoing surgery, and people suffering from anemia. In addition to whole blood donation, you can donate blood products like platelets and plasma. Platelet donations help patients who have undergone transplants, who are undergoing surgery, as well as those patients battling with cancer, blood cancer, and blood disorders. Plasma donations go to help trauma, burn, and cancer patients.
Bone marrow donation is one of the five points of life that is very close to my heart. My little sister was diagnosed with leukemia in 1988 and, after battling the disease for a few years, she underwent a bone marrow transplant. By this time, bone marrow transplants for leukemia patients with non-related donors had been successfully performed for just over a decade, but the registry of bone marrow donors had only been established in 1986 and the first successful match from that registry had happened in 1987. So, when doctors were searching for a donor for my sister in 1991, this was all still pretty new. I was tested, as were our mom, our dad, and our baby sister—none of us were matches. Though some of our extended family members would have willingly donated, they were ineligible to do so; others refused to even be tested, supposedly afraid of the (rather minimal) risks of donation procedures. Unable to find a matching donor, they proceeded with the transplant, using my sister’s own marrow that they treated and transplanted back into her. Though it did buy all of us some extra time together, it was ultimately unsuccessful—a few leukemia cells had survived the treatment—and we lost her in late 1992. I am now—and have been for some time—on the Be The Match registry and I have and will continue to advocate that everyone who can, do the same.
A great deal of discomfort around the idea of organ donation is a result of our having to contemplate our own mortality. There are types of donation that can only occur after our deaths: heart, cornea, bone, skin, heart valves, veins, etc. On top of the difficulty of discussing our mortality, many folks are reluctant to even consider what may happen to their bodies after death, thinking it too morbid and unsettling. And those feelings are valid. And it is also worth pushing through those feelings to really consider becoming an organ donor. By donating your organs and tissues after death, you can save the lives of up to eight people and positively impact the lives of all those who would have been grieving the loss of those eight people without your gift. Those donations can also improve the lives of up to seventy-seven more people. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that organ donation after death can help the donors’ families through their grieving process. The potential to positively impact that many people, to give that much hope and love, is surely worth muddling through the discomfort of having to consider our own deaths.
So, this February 14th, celebrate all kinds of love—not just romantic love—by doing some research and taking steps to become a donor. To find a location near you to donate blood and blood products like platelets, check out the international blood donation center locator offered by AABB (formerly known as American Association of Blood Bank). To learn more about becoming a bone marrow donor, visit Be the Match. If you’re interested in finding out more information about the types of organ and tissue donation or if you’re ready to commit to becoming a donor, please visit Donate Life America.
“Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” – Maya Angelou
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