November marks National Marrow Awareness Month
When Allison Higgins signed up for the national marrow donor registry more than four years ago, she never expected to be a match for a patient.
So when she learned she was a match in October 2018, she had no hesitations about donating – and neither did her family.
“Once I let them know what it was all about, my family was really excited,” said Higgins, who is an accountant with Apple based in Austin. “They said, ‘This is an incredible opportunity. This is so great that you’re able to help someone in this way.’”
November is National Marrow Awareness Month, when organizations like GenCure, a subsidiary of San Antonio nonprofit BioBridge Global, recognize stem cell and bone marrow donors who help save lives around the world and raise awareness about the marrow registry.
For patients with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood cancers and disorders, stem cell or bone marrow transplants could potentially cure their diseases. GenCure works with Be the Match to find potential donors in central and south Texas, including Higgins, who signed up at a drive at Apple, along with her sister Sarah Talbot.
Higgins’ family supported her as she prepared for the donation, which requires a full physical exam and then five days of filgrastim shots leading up to the day of collection. Filgrastim promotes stem cell production in the body. During this time, her mother cared for Higgins’ 3-year-old and 1-year-old sons, as her husband focused on the house.
Higgins’ donated at the GenCure Donor Center in November, during National Marrow Awareness Month. On the day of her donation, Higgins’ sister came to support her. Both sisters had been called as potential donors, but Talbot recently had surgery and was unable to donate.
“I’m really proud of her,” Talbot said. “I’m really happy she has the opportunity to help someone in such a powerful way.”
For Higgins, donating taught her about the importance of joining the registry and the donation process.
“Before I donated, I didn’t know there was an option to do the peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation instead of the bone marrow donation,” Higgins said. “The PBSC donation is a lot less involved and a lot less down time for me.”
Depending on the patient’s needs, a donor who is confirmed as a match will be asked to donate stem cells or bone marrow. Seventy-five percent of donations are PBSC donations, in which blood is removed from one arm, stem cells are filtered through a machine and then the remaining blood is returned into the other arm. Only twenty-five percent of donors will be asked to give bone marrow through an outpatient procedure done under anesthesia in a hospital. Travel and lodging expenses are covered.
To receive a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, patients must be a close match to a donor’s human leukocyte antigens (HLA), an inherited genetic set of tissue typing of the immune system. Because a patient is more likely to match someone from their own race or ethnicity, individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds are encouraged to join the registry. The more people who join the registry, the higher chances a patients have to find a match.
Signing up for the registry is the first step to potentially save the life of a patient in need. Text GENCURE to 61474 to start the registration process. Potential donors must be age 18-44, in general good health and willing and available to donate to any patient in need.
Higgins urges others to join the registry.
“It’s a wonderful thing to do,” she said. “You have the potential to save someone’s life.”