Outside of work …. blood, without the sweat and tears

February 5th, 2017

blood heartsWe are all more than the business person many of us encounter on a day-to-day basis. So, in a change of emphasis, this blog covers something I do “outside of work”. Many people do many great things outside of work in voluntary or charity roles, helping out others in many ways – paying back and paying it forward.

This week, I spoke at a local community group about my experience as a stem cell donor; I’m sharing some of the information here.

Saving a life: Bone marrow / stem cell donation

Bone marrow is a pongy tissue found in the hollow centres of some bones and it contains stem cells, which are the building blocks of cells across the whole body, including healthy blood cells. Stem cells produce three important types of blood cells:

  • red blood cells – carry oxygen around the body
  • white blood cells – help fight infection
  • platelets – help stop bleeding

Why is it needed?

It helps treat and often cure many life-threatening conditions, including bone marrow failure, leukaemia, lymphoma, certain genetic blood and immune system disorders. It is also sometimes necessary following certain high-dose chemotherapy and radiotherapy, used to treat cancers as they tend to damage healthy stem cells as well as destroying cancer cells.

Need for donors

Ideally, a sibling or other close family members would be able to donate to a patient in need. Only 1 in 3 people find such a match, leaving the rest to find a match from the register. For minority groups, including those with mixed racial ancestry, finding this match can be very hard. While there are four blood groups, which can be Rhesus +ve or -ve, a stem cell match is like matching an organ and has to be much closer. In some cases, a patient’s own stem cells can be harvested, prior to having a cycle of treatment, then put back afterwards.

The registers in England, which work closely together, are run by

  • British Bone Marrow Registry, part of the NHS
  • Anthony Nolan Trust register, run by the Anthony Nolan Trust charity

Who can donate?

If you would like to become a potential bone marrow donor, you must be:

  • 17 to 40 years of age to join the British Bone Marrow Registry and a blood donor; you can join the blood donor register until age 65
  • 16 to 30 years of age to join the Anthony Nolan Trust register
  • in good health
  • over 50kg (7st 12lb) weight
  • BMI lower than 40

You will stay on the register until you are 60.

I joined the Blood Donor registry in 1998, through the Joely Bear Appeal and the Bone Marrow registry shortly afterwards. I was matched to a patient 9 years later and the donation took place in May 2007.

Where donations go

The two England registers work together and internationally – donations are provided in the UK and overseas. You cannot choose who will receive your donation and it remains anonymous. Over time, donor and patient may contact NHS Blood and Transplant who will facilitate contact. Based on the time of pick up, and some of the paperwork, the nurse worked out that my donation was going to the US.

Serious commitment

Whilst the donation process doesn’t hurt, it can be uncomfortable and takes some time. You need to be seriously committed to the process and, whilst the medical staff will check with you throughout the process, from the time you are identified as a potential match to the donation, that you are happy to continue, I can’t imagine how devastating it can be when a donor pulls out of the process, having been matched with a patient.

How it is performed

You will receive a letter, telling  you that you are a potential match and you will provide some blood samples to re-check the match. You will then be called for health checks, covering a wider range of blood tests followed by a full medical check.

Bone marrow donation

The bone marrow is removed from the hip, under general anaesthetic. You will usually stay in hospital for up to 48 hours and are likely to feel discomfort at the site for some time, along with the recovery from the effects of the anaesthetic.

Peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation

This allows you to donate stem cells from your circulating blood, without having to directly donate any bone marrow. For four days before the PBSC donation, you receive an injection of G-CSF which stimulates the stem cells in the blood – the most common side effects of this are to make you feel like you have ‘flu, with headache and tiredness.

I received the injections for the first three days at home and, on the fourth day, went to the hospital. They did some further checks to see what my stem cell count was and whether the dose needed adjusting. I was then put up locally, so I could be at the hospital on time the next morning.

I arrived at the hospital in good time in the morning. I had to be sure I’d eaten and drunk in the morning, although not too much – I was going to be stuck in one position for 5 hours, once set up. The basic procedure is to take the blood out of one arm, spin in it through an apheresis machine to extract the stem cells and put the rest back into my other arm. At the end of the day, the cells are counted and matched against the requirements for the patient – 160 x a number, meaning the patient was 160kg. Within an hour, the lab reported that there were sufficient cells and I didn’t need to stay another day.

On the way home, the nurse called to say they’d also done blood tests on me to make sure I was okay and my potassium had dropped a bit. She recommended eating 5 bananas in the next 24 hours.

The aches and headaches went immediately, although I was a bit tired for a day or two, but nothing intrusive.

I later found out that the donation had helped the patient for some time.

Useful links:



http://www.joelybear.org.uk/ – next blood donor session Sunday 19th March, Croxdale Road, Borehamwood

http://www.joshualerner.co.uk/ – diagnosed in his early 20s, Josh wrote about his battle with Lymphoma from diagnosis in October 2013, to date, including having his own cells harvested and his recent “Livin’ without Lymphoma” post


If you’re 17 or over, in general good health and know of no reason why you can’t be a blood donor, please sign up. If you’re under 40, while you’re at the donation, ask about joining the bone marrow registry. Or get a “spit kit” from the Anthony Nolan Trust.

You may also find local “drives” for donors when someone nearby is critically ill and they will often sign up people of any age.

Get in touch if you’d like to know more.


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