Surfing the web this evening I came across this article posted in The RAF Waddington "Insight" Magazine. It tells the story of a serviceman's experience of becoming a bone marrow donor.
I hope that the guys at the Insight Mag don't mind, but I have now pinched it to post on this blog as I think it is a story that needs to be shared.
The story of Flt Lt Bertie Brown-Ahern,Air Battle Training Centre, RAF Waddington,Lincolnshire
"Despite the fact that I had a litre of bone marrow harvested from my pelvis, (unfortunately
the most intrusive way) I was catching a train 5 hours after coming around from the general anaesthetic– lucky me.
In truth what I find strange when discussing bone marrow donation is people don’t generally ask how or why? Much publicity has been raised in recent years about the mystical power of stem
cells and bone marrow sort of falls into the same category, bone marrow donations work because they just do!
So how is it done? Once a potential donor has undergone initial tests (a saliva test pack is sent to you) and has been placed on to the register, they are available for matching. If they are ever thought to be a potential match they undergo further blood tests to verify their viability. The
likely hood of being a match is greatly increased for family members but it is not guaranteed. Hence, organisations like the Anthony Nolan Trust, which to help sufferers without suitable family donor.
The chances of being an unrelated donor vary but generally speaking it is approximately 1 in 20,000. If matched, donors are asked to donate approximately 1,000ml of bone marrow. Everything is done anonymously and donors have the right to say no at any time. Furthermore, all costs are met by the Anthony Nolan Trust. For example, my wife and I were flown first class from Scotland and put in a hotel for the duration.
Once harvested the bone marrow is introduced into the recipients’ blood stream, whereby it finds its way into the bone cavities. Once here the bone marrow starts to do its thing,reproducing until it fills the cavities. After approximately 2 weeks the bone marrow begins to reproduce healthy, disease free blood. This process, simple as though it seems, is not without risks for the recipient.
In the case of leukaemia, intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used to eradicate the disease. The intensity of these treatments, known as conditioning, has the effect of severely weakening the patient’s immune system, resulting in them requiring a bone marrow transplant.
If the transplant is unsuccessful they could be left with no bone marrow at all. Conversely the risk to the donor is minimal.
There are now two ways that one can donate bone marrow. The first and most widely used method is known as a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. The second method involves donation of the bone marrow itself. A peripheral blood stem cell donation (PBSC) is a procedure that allows a person to donate stem cells, without having to directly donate any bone marrow. Every day, for four days before the PBSC donation takes place, a nurse will inject you with a medicine, either at home, medical centre or hospital. The medicine increases the number of stem cells in the blood stream.
On the fifth day, the donor is connected to a harvesting machine that separates the stem cells from the blood. The advantage of a PBSC donation is that no general anaesthetic is required and subsequently there is no requirement to stay overnight in hospital, although for aircrew, it may
mean you cannot fly whilst receiving the medicine.
The second method (which I elected for because it allowed me to fly right up until the day before the donation) is a direct bone marrow transplant. During this procedure bone marrow is removed from your hip or pelvis using a syringe. While this is not a surgical operation, it is usually carried out under a general anaesthetic because the procedure can be painful.
After donation it is normal for some mild discomfort where the needle was inserted into the bone, but this passes within a few days. Normally donors are required to stay in the hospital for 24 hours in order to ensure that they have fully recovered from the general anaesthetic – but it is case dependant. It takes just 5 days for the bone marrow to regenerate, during which it is recommended that donors remain at home as they may feel fatigued.
Both methods of bone marrow donation are very safe, and the risks of developing complications are minimal. However, possible complications do include infection and an adverse reaction to the anaesthetics. Two weeks after donating I was back flying Tornado GR4s with no ill affects felt at all.
So that’s the how, but why? Everyone will have their own personal motivations; mine was that an immediate family member died from Leukaemia as there was no donor available. Hoping to spare another family the same grief I placed myself upon the Anthony Nolan bone marrow register.
Despite having access to a database of 12 million people worldwide, the Anthony Nolan Trust only manages to conduct 400 donations annually for the 16,000 people requiring a transplant. Sadly that means hundreds of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and children die each year because a match could not be found. Bone marrow donation is an exacting science and recipients and donors have to be a close genetic match.
The Anthony Nolan Trust raises funds and awareness of bone marrow donations to help combat diseases such as leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow cells), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or a related cancer of the blood. Of the people currently on the bone marrow register 60% are female and 40% are male. Males are generally able to provide larger volumes of marrow, and are less likely to suffer from anaemia. Also, unlike female donors, males do not have to come off the register due to pregnancy.
Currently, certain ethnic communities such as African, Asian, Chinese and Eastern European are under-represented on the bone marrow register. Anyone can be on the register providing they are between 18 and 40 years of age, in good health and weigh over 51kg, which generally speaking in the Royal Air Force we are. Furthermore, unlike blood donations, Aircrew are not prevented from being donors. And that’s what happened to me; I found out I was a viable match whilst on the Tornado GR4 OCU. Despite the fact I was undertaking flying training, I was permitted by the Squadron Commander to donate to an anonymous recipient. The result was that I had two weeks off flying, saved a person’s life and wasn’t even back coursed…… in fact the weather at Lossiemouth was so bad I didn’t even miss a trip!
Donations are anonymous but after two years the trust informed me that my recipient would like to contact me. I agreed and eventually we got in touch. My recipient was a doctor who had, ironically, spent many years working for the RAF and working with Leukaemia patients. Previous to the transplant he had spent many months in hospital, terribly ill and unable to work.
However, just 6 weeks after the donation he was able to return to work. Over the 2 years we exchanged telephone calls and we eventually arranged to meet on a bank holiday Monday.
Unfortunately, the day before, his wife Carol rang with the sad news that Nick had died that morning from a massive heart attack. I was dumbstruck that she would be ringing me merely hours after he had died. However, she was adamant that I should be amongst the first to know, as she and her family had three years that they otherwise would not have had because of the donation.
I am still on the register and would donate again without a second thought. If you are interested in becoming a bone marrow donor then pease visit the Anthony Nolan Trust website:
Alternatively you can help support the trust by raising funds or supporting forthcoming
Well,What a brilliant and emotive story this tells about the personal experience of this Tornado Pilot who decided to get involved and become a donor. Well done Bertie, and Well done RAF Waddington for publishing this very informative and moving story.
P.S Having spent almost 3 years at RAF Lossiemouth during the late 90's (I helped to move the Tornado GR1 fleet from RAF Honington) I can appreciate the comments made about the awful weather keeping Bertie grounded for 2 weeks :-).