Becoming a Bone Marrow Donor

A bone marrow transplant is a lifesaving procedure used to treat and cure dozens of illnesses affecting all genders, ages and ethnicities. The Johns Hopkins Bone Marrow Transplant Program was founded in 1968 by George Santos, whose research paved the way for modern-day bone marrow transplant efforts. As a national referral center for bone marrow transplants, Johns Hopkins performs about 300 transplants a year.

Susan Crabbin, director of the Be The Match program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, weighs in on some questions about bone marrow and the process of becoming a bone marrow donor. Be The Match manages the world’s largest and most diverse registry of potential bone marrow donors.

For those interested in learning more and/or registering as a bone marrow donor, attend the bone marrow drive on Friday, Feb. 27, from 8 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 8 p.m. in Schaffer Auditorium in The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center.


What is bone marrow? What does it do?

Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside some of our bones that contains immature blood-forming cells known as stem cells. Stem cells develop into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Healthy marrow and blood cells are needed to live.

Why would someone need a bone marrow transplant?

Bone marrow transplants are used as treatment for more than 70 diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell disease. Other diseases include aplastic anemia, myelodysplastic syndromes, immune deficiencies and inherited metabolic disorders.

How are bone marrow donors and recipients matched?

The best transplant outcomes are when the donor and recipient’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) match closely. HLA is a protein found on most cells in the body. There are many HLA markers that make someone’s tissue type unique.

When someone joins the Be The Match Registry, a sample of his or her DNA is provided through a cheek swab, which is tested for six basic HLA markers.

When a patient is in need of a bone marrow transplant, his or her doctor will choose several potential donors from the Be The Match Registry, which matches the patient at the basic level. These donors will be asked to have additional testing done to see which donor matches the patient most closely. Eight percent of registered donors will go on to actually make a donation.

Is a bone marrow drive at all like a blood drive?

No, not really. During a bone marrow drive, interested people do not actually donate bone marrow. A bone marrow drive offers people the opportunity to learn more about the Be The Match Registry and if interested, they can register to become a member.

What is the process like to donate bone marrow? Does it hurt?

Once someone joins the registry, he or she will be contacted by a local donor center if a possible match for a patient. The first step is to have a blood sample drawn for additional testing. From this testing, the decision is made as to which potential donor will be asked to consider donating.

There are two possible ways of donating bone marrow. Before donation, the donor will be evaluated to make sure that the donation is a safe procedure for them. The average time commitment to attend appointments and donate is 30 to 40 hours over a four- to six-week period.

The two types of donation are:

  1. Marrow donation is a surgical procedure under anesthesia and is usually an outpatient procedure. During the procedure, needles are used to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. You will not feel this being done. After the procedure, there will be some soreness in the lower back. Donors are usually back to their normal routine in two to seven days.
  2. Peripheral blood stem cell donation is the most common way to donate. It is a nonsurgical outpatient procedure. For five days prior to the procedure, the donor receives daily injections of a drug that increases the number of cells in the bloodstream needed for transplant. On the fifth day, blood is removed from one arm, passed through a machine that separates out the blood forming cells and then is returned to the donor through the other arm. The procedure takes about four to six hours. Donors are usually back to their normal routine in a day or two.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering joining the registry?

My advice is to understand what you are signing up for. You are making a commitment to help any patient in need. If we contact you, we hope you’ll be willing to give a blood sample for further testing. If you are the best match, we hope you’ll be willing to become a donor.

Once I have joined the registry, what do I need to do?

Once you join the registry, you stay on it until you are 61 years old or until you tell us otherwise. You could be contacted in a few months or maybe years from now. Should you be a match for a patient, it is critical that we are able to contact you as quickly as possible. If you change any contact information, it is important that you contact us so we can update your information. When you register, we will give you ways to do this.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }


Julianne Carroll February 25, 2015 at 9:04 am

I am extremely interected in becoming a donor. I am unable to attend the drive on Friday. Is this covered by insurance? Also, since I am unable to attend what do I do from here? Many thanks!


Susan Crabbin February 25, 2015 at 10:11 am

You can join the registry online at We will also be having another drive in the Weinberg lobby on March 26 and I will be at the JHH blood drive on March 31 to register donors. Not sure what you mean by covered by insurance but once you are member of the registry if you are a match for a patient there is no cost to you. If you donate for a patient it is their insurance that covers the donor's expenses.

Sue Crabbin
Donor Center Coordinator


coleen brandquist February 25, 2015 at 12:51 am

if a persons close to 65 can they 64...Thank Youy


Susan Crabbin February 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

Unfortunately the age limit is 61. Thank you for your interest
Sue Crabbin
Donor Center Coordinator


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