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‘I’d do it again in a heartbeat’: debunking myths around stem cell donation as #MenGiveLife kicks off

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

For 29-year-old Mike Hogman from Nanaimo, the path to becoming someone’s only lifeline started with being bored in a university class back in 2008.

“I happened to be sitting in class one day, not paying attention,” says Hogman. “I was browsing Facebook and came across a link to the OneMatch website. So I hopped on the website and filled out the registration form to be a stem cell donor. What happened next is they mailed me a package, I swabbed the insides of my mouth, mailed it back and continued to forget about it.”

But he didn’t have to forget about it for too long. About six months after his very on-the-spur-of-the-moment registration, he got a phone call saying he had a match.

“It was a little bit of both shock and excitement,” says Hogman.

After the necessary screening and tests, he ended going in for a stem cell donation in December of 2009.

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“Going into it, I was pretty naive,” says Hogman. “I didn’t know much about it at the time I signed up, other than I could save somebody’s life. As far as what the actual procedure entailed and what my steps were from the time I got that initial phone call, I had no idea.”

Canadian Blood Services has been encouraging stem cell donation for years, but many Canadians still hold some misconceptions about what exactly is involved and what risks they are subjecting themselves to.

Approximately 1,000 Canadians today are in desperate need of a stem cell transplant.

Blood stem cells are immature cells that can turn into any of the cells present in the bloodstream. They’re used to treat more than 80 blood-related diseases and disorders. Stem cells can be derived from bone marrow, blood or cord blood and all procedures are referred to as stem cell transplants.

One of the most common misconceptions is that stem cell donations are painful.

Canadian Blood Services says they facilitate two types of procedures – stem cell donation from bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell donation.

For bone marrow donation, the collection of stem cells is taken from the iliac crest and this type of procedure is done under general anaesthetic so the donor experiences no pain.

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For peripheral blood stem cell donation, the collection is a non-surgical procedure done in an outpatient clinic and does not involve anaesthetic.

That’s exactly what Hogman had to go through.

He says the whole procedure took about six hours without a need for him to go under.

“The staff at Canadian Blood Services kind of held my hand throughout the whole thing. They made sure I understood exactly what I was getting myself into,” he says. “I was present and conscious the whole time, and I was able to walk out of the hospital after it was all done. It’s very similar to donating blood when you feel just a little bit weak after. But I went out for dinner and I was back to [feeling] 100 per cent that evening.”

READ MORE: Canadian Blood Services pushing stem cell donation

That’s another popular misconception, according to Trudi Goels with Canadian Blood Services. Many people believe they will have to take time off to get back to normal after the procedure. In reality, the recovery process is typically not lengthy and the body usually replaces the donated stem cells within six weeks.

“Most people are back up to regular activity within a couple of days,” says Goels. “They feel a little tired and run down like they had the flu.”

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Bone marrow donors can expect to feel some soreness in their lower back. There have also been reports of donors feeling tired and having some discomfort walking for a couple of days or longer. Peripheral blood stem cell donors report varying symptoms including headache, bone or muscle pain, nausea, insomnia and fatigue. But these effects disappear shortly after donating.

Despite possible side effects, Hogman says he would it again, no questions asked.

“As long as I stay within the age bracket that they are looking for and I stay healthy, I stay on the potential match list indefinitely. If someone was to come along and was a match with me, I would totally do it again in a heartbeat.”

Hogman says he was lucky to have a chance to meet face-to-face with the man he donated his stem cells to.

“He not only lived because of the [donation], but got to see his three daughters go to college and was able to go back to work,” says Hogman. “He was up for my wedding last year and I just visited him in Ottawa about a month ago.”

“That’s the most important thing. You can give somebody a chance to continue living their life.”

Today, Canadian Blood Services have launched the #MenGiveLife stem cell recruitment campaign.

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They are specifically looking for young men aged 17 to 35 to donate stem cells.

Stem cells from young men can offer patients better possible outcomes by reducing post-transplant complications. As men are typically bigger than women, they can also provide greater volumes of stem cells for eventual transplantation.

More male registrants are needed to shift the composition of the registry.

“They are quite underrepresented on the registry,” says Goels.

Last year, half of all stem cell donors chosen to help a Canadian patient were males aged 17 to 35. But they account for just 20 per cent of donors on Canada’s adult stem cell registry.

“This event today is about men giving life and the opportunity for them to come out and show their ability to be heroes and be able to save people,” says Goels.

For the #MenGiveLife campaign, Canadian Blood Services is teaming up with the Vancouver Canucks, spearheaded by defender Erik Gudbranson whose brother Dennis was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2004 and received a life-saving stem cell transplant.

The campaign will run from Sept. 8 to 18 and will coincide with World Marrow Donor Day on Saturday, Sept. 17.

You can register to be a stem cell donor at blood.ca.

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