Donating My Bone Marrow Experience

I registered myself as a bone marrow donor in around June 2013. How I got to know the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) was indirectly through my part-time internship stint at GNum. BMDP is Singapore’s bone marrow registry. There are numerous registries worldwide. Unlike the blood bank, which is supported by HSA, BMDP receives no government funding. The video production crew was sharing the same office space as GNum and they had just completed a shoot for the programme. After a quick chat with them, I decided to sign up for a postal testing kit. My motivation was more of a fun thing. There is 1 in 20,000 chances of getting a match. So I thought, “Just registered la ah. For all I know, I won’t get a match at all.”

The test was simple. Included in the kit is a pair of cheek swabs. Swab your cheeks for a minute or two and then send them back with your information through the self-addressed envelope. Each test costs $150, but it is done free for us. However, as said earlier, BDMP receives no government funding. So, every little amount you donate will help to offset the running costs.

Fast forward one year later. In June 2014, I received a call from BDMP saying that I am a match to a recipient, and was requested to go down for a confirmatory testing and a donor workup. Chirply, I agreed. The first group of people I shared the news with was my friends at HackerspaceSG. After all, it was where I received the call while doing my stuff there. It was in our disbelief that I was a match, given the relatively low probability.

I went for the confirmatory testing and the donor workup at Novena Specialist Center, where BDMP is located. The confirmatory testing is the same cheek swabs process. It is to ensure that the initial testing is correct. The donor workup is to ascertain that I am of healthy condition to donate and I am willing to go through the process. At every stage, I was asked repeated by the coordinator to make sure that I want to go through. Apparently, there were cases where the donor decided to pull out at any point in time, even just before the actual procedure. The registry didn’t want to give false hope to the recipient, neither did I. Due to confidentiality issues, I am only told that the recipient is around my age, is a male, suffers from a rare form of leukemia and is at the end stage of it. A bone marrow transplant is his only chance left at surviving.

Strictly speaking, it is not the bone marrow that is required, but the stem cells. Because of that, there are two ways to donate. The first is the traditional method of extracting the cells in the bone marrow. It is a surgical operation. The donor will feel sore in the lower back for the next few days and the missing bone marrow will be replaced in 4 to 6 weeks time. The second method is PBSC donation. It is similar to blood apheresis donation process. 5 days prior to the extraction of the stem cells, the donor is to be injected with a drug to stimulate the stem cells out from the bone marrow into the blood circulatory system. The blood is then filtered for the stem cells. Side effects from the drugs include headaches, bone or muscle aches. Recovery is fast once the donor is off from the drug. After the discovery of the second method, over 90% of the donors choose the second method.

I choose to do the traditional way for various reasons. According to my schedule, I had to no time or energy to deal with the side effects of the drugs. I had rehearsals, work and studies to deal with. And I hate needles. It is a necessary evil, but I avoid whenever I can. Surprisingly so, since I am a frequent blood donor. And it is also because I am a blood donor, I know that I cannot stand having a needle inserted within me for more than 30 minutes, let alone 6 hours with 2 needles.

After the confirmatory testing was done, I went back home and broke the news. The first thing was asked was whether I am sure I want to go through the procedure and that I understand the risks involved and that I had talked to my elder brother, who is a doctor about it.

The donation was initially to be done in end June, but due to developing complications on the recipient’s end, it was postponed to July. After much deliberation over mine and the doctor’s schedule, the operation date was scheduled on the day after my graduation, 16 July 2014.

As I performed in the finale for my graduation ceremony, along with the performing and stage crew, we were offered a celebratory dinner at Number Nine restuarant at Millenia Walk after the ceremonies had ended. I wished I could have got drunk with the rest. I skipped out on the alcohol and had mocktails: one Virgin Mary and plenty of Gunner, and plenty of meat: steaks and pork collar. Yummylicious! The night closed with a couple of games at the pool table.

I took a cab at 6am to Novena Mount Elizabeth Hospital from Pan Pacific Singapore Hotel. To the cab driver, I have to say thank you. I had only $9 with me. The fare was $11+. Without asking me why I was going to the hospital, he chose not to make a fuss and gave me a discount. After admitted to the hospital, I changed to the hospital gown that was provided. I was wheeled into the operating theatre after the nurses and doctors walked through with me on questions on allergies and if I had operations before.

The operation started at 8.30am. I didn’t know what happened during the operation as I was on general anesthesia. The next moment I woke up, I was on the hospital bed.  The operation ended at 9.15am and when I saw the clock, it was past 10am. One thing I forgot was that I occasionally had low blood pressure after blood donations. The silly me had myself propped up and the next thing I knew was that I was seeing stars. For the next 6 hours, I was on IV drips to replace the volume of blood that was extracted. Over a litre of blood was taken out through the bone marrow.

As the operation was a day operation, I was discharged at around 4pm. I went back home, and fell asleep till 10pm. According to my brother, I snored like nobody’s business. I guess my body pretty much took a beating from the operation.

A post-operation cheek-up will be done at a later stage. This is to make sure that I have no lasting effects from the operation, which in most cases do not happen.

Now, the ball is in the recipient’s court. Get well and put my cells into good use, you unknown recipient!

The Bone Marrow Donor Programme requires donors, be it the bone marrow or financially. You can sign up as a bone marrow donor through their website. A postal kit will be sent to you. If you want to support the programme in other means, there are other options as well! Organise a donor drive in your company or Institutes of Higher Learning, or raise funds for the programme or just be an outreach advocate!

Featured image photo credit: Tan Yan Ling (Facebook)


To my friends and family: Thanks for your well-wishes, you guys have been extremely supportive. Some called me a hero for going through the operation and potentially saving someone, but to me, it is an easy decision to make. If I have the ability to change the world, even just for one bit, why squander the opportunity and deny others a fighting chance? Everyone has the ability to help someone, even for the unknown passerby.

Update (17/7 12.30pm):

Some photos taken after the operation:

On pain management: Surprisingly, I woke up with just a dull sore on my lower back. I have yet to touch the painkillers, Arcoxia and Panadine, that was prescribed by my doctor. Walking up the stairs is an issue though. It felt as though I had run a half-marathon yesterday (Yes, I ran 21km before) when I climbed the stairs up to HackerspaceSG this morning. Other than that, pain is just a dull sore on my back.

Update (17/9 12.30am):

I did an interview with Channel 8’s Morning Express show!

Last update (mid 2015):

According to BMDP, the recipient had recovered.

14 responses to “Donating My Bone Marrow Experience”

  1. Way to go Robert! One of the rare posts that I read word for word and was really interested about the process. Wish I had the same courage as you.

  2. Don’t usually click on blog posts, much less read them through and comment on them, but you’ve done an awesome thing Robert. If I ever get matched you’ve just inspired me to do the same.

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