The Medical Minute: Donate life

By John Messmer

How often does the average person get to save a life? Not in the dramatic way you see it on television. The average person will not get to save someone by running a cardiac resuscitation. But even though it’s not as exciting, the average person can save a life just as surely as the TV doctors do.

One way to save a life is to agree to be an organ donor. When we die, our organs and tissues may be able to help others. To be an organ donor, indicate your status as an organ donor on your driver's license and tell your family as they may be the ones to make the decision for you. Also, having a designated health-care power of attorney will increase the chance of your wishes being carried out.

But we need not die to save a life. Although living people can donate a kidney, almost any one of us can be blood or marrow donors. Every day there is a critical need for both items.

Any reasonably healthy person over age 16 may donate blood every eight weeks. There is no upper age limit. Only a handful of medications and medical problems preclude donation. It takes about 30-45 minutes and is completely safe. It is impossible to catch HIV or anything else from a blood donation. Only 5 percent of potential donors now give blood. If 10 percent were to donate regularly, health-care groups would be able to meet all their needs for blood and blood products.

All types of blood are needed, not just the rare ones. Since most people are type O or A, those types are needed the most. In addition to the red blood cells, one unit of blood can provide clotting factors and other blood components regardless of a person's blood type.

Most hospitals have blood donation centers, and they are typically available for walk-in year round. Blood drives are another place to donate. In central Pennsylvania, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank ( has information on blood drives and general information about blood donation.

Patients with leukemia, lymphoma and some other diseases may need a bone marrow transplant to save their lives after aggressive chemotherapy. Even though family members would seem like the most logical source, about 70 percent of patients can not use family members for various reasons. Every day, 6,000 people turn to marrow registries to find a donor.

Unlike blood donation, marrow can not be stored. Potential marrow donors register and provide a sample of blood for preliminary tissue typing. If you are found to be a suitable match, you will be contacted to do further testing and possibly to donate marrow or peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC). A marrow donation requires anesthesia since it is taken from the bone. PBSC donation is similar to blood donation, but the donor's own bone marrow is stimulated with medication to increase the number of stem cells in circulation, and it might take a few days to collect enough cells.

Marrow or PBSC donation is a bigger commitment and there are numerous times that the potential donor is given the opportunity to change his or her mind. Potential donors must be between 18 and 61 to be registered. Because marrow is a tissue similar to organs, a genetic match is important. Race and ethnicity become a factor as one is more likely to match with someone of a similar ethnic background. There continues to be an unfilled need for donors who are not Caucasian. More information can be found at

An even easier way to donate stem cells is with umbilical cord blood. After delivery, the umbilical cord can be donated in many hospitals to harvest stem cells. Pregnant women may ask their doctors or obstetric care professionals if cord blood donation is available at their hospital.

You need not be a doctor, nurse, EMT or first responder to save a life. Every day unsung heroes give just a tiny part of themselves so that others may live.

John Messmer is associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009