Cedars-Sinai Blog

What's It Like to Donate Bone Marrow?

A family smiling and hugging each other

Asking family members is often the first step for those in need of a bone marrow transplant.

When 56-year-old Sheldon Sims learned his older brother Alan needed a bone marrow transplant (BMT), he knew he wanted to become a donor.

"We have a tight bond," says Sheldon.

In 2016, Alan was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of cancer that causes abnormal blood cells in the bone marrow.

Despite a steady routine of blood transfusions, Alan's health was declining. He needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.

"Donors are typically back to 100% within a couple weeks."

What is bone marrow?

Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside the bones that makes stem cells. These stem cells become blood cells:

  • Red blood cells, which carry oxygen
  • White blood cells, which fight infection
  • Platelets, which help control bleeding

"When you donate bone marrow, you're also giving immune cells that provide the potential for a cure," explains Dr. Ronald L. Paquette, an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai.

Bone marrow transplant explained

Whether you're joining the donor registry or donating for a loved one or family member, the first step is a physical exam to ensure donating marrow is safe for you.

People who have heart disease, sleep apnea, and certain autoimmune conditions may not be eligible to donate.

Once you're cleared to become a donor, you'll get a simple blood test to determine whether immune proteins on the surface of your blood cells are compatible with a recipient's.

If you're a match, you'll undergo further testing to make sure you don't have any conditions or infectious diseases that could be passed to the recipient.

On transplant day, donors arrive at the hospital and are put under general anesthesia. During the procedure, the donor is on their stomach and bone marrow is retrieved from the back part of the pelvis.

Two physicians draw out the bone marrow simultaneously—one on each side of the donor—through special needles. About 1-2 teaspoons of marrow is drawn out at a time.

"We do that over and over again until we retrieve the desired amount," Dr. Paquette says. "There are 2 incisions that are less than a centimeter in length and don't require stitches."

The process takes about 2 hours from start to finish depending on the size of the recipient and the amount of marrow required.

A new chapter

Want to become a bone marrow donor? Learn more here or contact Be The Match to join their registry of volunteer donors.