How to register to become bone marrow, stem cell donor

HOUSTON – Thousands of patients battling blood cancers depend on bone marrow and stem cell donors.

Oftentimes, they are complete strangers.

Altonet Fillmore works for the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center and knows firsthand how important the gift of donation can be. She donated bone marrow after 14 years on the bone marrow registry.

"It's imperative just for the hope of the patient that they have a chance to live and extend their lives,” Fillmore said.

Healthy patients from age 18 to 60 are eligible to join the Be The Match registry, and patients between ages 18 and 44 are especially needed. After filling out paperwork, patients will need to provide a cheek swab in order for the results to be matched to a patient in need.

"A lot of times, when people are thinking about it, their fears are far worse than what the actual process is. It's simple. This is just adding you to the registry,” Fillmore said.

After signing up for the registry, donors may be matched with potential recipients. At that time, they may be contacted for a confirmatory blood test. Only one in about 430 people will go on to donate, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.

Fillmore was one of those people. After 14 years on the registry, she was called to donate bone marrow to a woman with leukemia.

"Just knowing that I was able to save someone's life and extend her life, I hope that my son and my family and friends were able to see what I did and follow in my footsteps,” she said.

Fillmore said she looks at the peron who received her bone as family.

Not only a life-saver, Fillmore is also a singer who has been on the hit shows, "American Idol," "Showtime at the Apollo" and "Star Search."  She wrote a song to honor her marrow recipient called "Love a Stanger."  

Dr. Simrit Parmar is an associate professor in the department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. She researches T cells and how they can be used to fight diseases.

"If we get a perfect match in the donor registry, it can translate into five or … 20 years for somebody who is struggling with their diseases," Parmar said.

More than 60 percent of people on the registry are Caucasian, and Parmar explained that it is imperative for ethnic minorities to sign up to become potential donors.

You are more likely to match with someone of the same ethnic ancestry or ethnic background, and doctors and advocates have been working to encourage more minorities to join the registry and eventually donate.

Be The Match hosts marrow drives at a variety of locations year round. Next week, registration drives will be held at the University of Houston Student Center from 10 a.m.-2pm on Monday Oct. 16, Wednesday, Oct. 18 and Thursday, Oct. 19. 

If you are interested in registering for Be The Match, visit one of the public drives, stop by a Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center location, or register online here.  

Registering involves entering your information on our website, and then completing a cheek swab with the swab kit you will be sent in the mail. Don't forget to return your swabs, as your registration is not complete until you do so!

If you would like to host a drive at your place of business, worship or community organization, send an email to Felicia Gann at gann@giveblood.org, or call 713-791-7723.

For more frequently asked questions and their answers about the registry and donation process, click here: https://bethematch.org/support-the-cause/donate-bone-marrow/join-the-marrow-registry/faqs-about-joining/