Donor #393681: Why I couldn’t be a medical hero

Twelve years ago this month, I signed up to be a bone marrow donor during a blood drive — I believe it was to honor the late Sen. Paul Wellstone — on Saint Paul’s West Side.

The pitch made a lot of sense to me. People need life-saving bone marrow, I’ve got plenty to spare, and although it would be an expensive process (I’d have to pay for the procedure to extract it), what could be a more worthwhile testimonial to our time on terra firma than leaving a living person behind who’d otherwise be dead had we not done something?

I had big dreams of doing that. I signed up. I’m “Donor #393681.”

A year went by and I heard nothing. Then another year and, finally, 12 went by and nobody, apparently, needed what I offered.

How could that be? Every four minutes, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer. Every hour, six more people die from it. Why was there no use for me?

Last Saturday in New Hampshire, friends and family held a bone marrow drive for a two-year-old who’ll die without it. Cancer has returned in a Grand Rapids, Mich., girl who now needs it. A family of a two year old in New York is still searching for a donor, even after two bone marrow drives. In Minneapolis, the mother of a 20-month-old is battling Hmong culture to find a future for her boy.

It’s true that the procedure is a painful one for a donor, but probably not more painful than the message that I realized accompanied Be the Match Registry’s “renew your commitment” e-mail that arrived today: I’m too old to help now.

It’s not the organization’s fault at all. Doctors use donations from people between the age of 18 and 45 90 percent of the time, BTM says on its website, which means I was a pretty useless member of the registry when I signed up 12 years ago at age 47. No wonder nobody called.

And when you hit 61, they toss you out of the registry, a final indignity to advancing age. “The age limit is not meant to discriminate in any way,” the organization says because there are more complications for people of a certain age.

Nonetheless, Be The Match will let old-timers feel better about things, for a price.

“Those between the ages of 45 and 60 who want to join Be The Match Registry® are welcome to do so, but must join through our online registration process. You will be required to make a $100 payment at the end of the online process to cover the cost to join.”

That’s the lot for the aging would-be hero: a pity entry in a registry of would-be heroes.

I can still donate blood, but the Red Cross is closing labs in some areas because there isn’t the demand for blood there once was.

I used to stop over to the blood center every other week and donate platelets, a two-hour process useful for people undergoing chemotherapy. But I had to stop that when my own medical problems surfaced.

I can still donate money, but past a certain age, your chance of being a medical hero — at least while surviving the process of being one — drops significantly. That’s medical reality, as the story of Joel Beeson I told you about nearly two years ago reminds us. He was dying, and he had a donor — his brother — willing to give him a piece of liver. But the hospital rejected the idea. His brother was too old. He was 58.

The older we get, the greater our chances of being the grateful rather than the hero.

But the indignities of getting older are nothing compared to being denied the opportunity to get older at all. And there are still two two-year-olds, a 10-year old, and a 20-month-old kid out there among the people waiting for a younger person to step forward.

  • Kassie

    There are still opportunities to save lives. My parents both plan to donate their bodies to the U of MN Medical School. Sure you aren’t giving directly to a person in need, but you are allowing future doctors access to the hands on education that they need to be successful.

  • Josh Ruhnke

    I just signed up to be a donor, so I filled your empty spot Bob.

  • Amanda H.

    I signed up too, Bob. I have 18 years left to donate, so hopefully I’ll get the call sometime in there. You can still be a medical hero because you inspired others to be donors.

  • A dedicated registry member

    Bob, thank you for joining the registry and being available for patients in need. As you may know, donors and patients are matched based upon their tissue typing. Those of us with unusual tissue types may never be needed; I joined the registry in 1991 and have not matched a patient.. yet. The NMDP’s research over the years has shown that cells from younger donors provide recipients the best possible outcome, so given the choice between equally-matched donors, transplant physicians will choose the 20 year old donor over the 59 year old donor every time. And NMDP Be The Match is obligated to protect donors and their health, hence the age limits.

    Another point to clarify: donors DON’T pay for marrow donation! The costs associated with search, testing, examining, travel and collection of donors are paid by the recipient and/or recipient’s insurance company. Donors who may have aged out of the registry are given other ways to help, such as financial donations that assist recipients and their families thru the ordeal and expense of transplantation, or volunteering at drives. Thank you again for bringing attention to the need for more donors to join the registry 🙂