Durham Marrow: Why you should act now to save a life

By Max Blum

In the archetypal trolley problem, 90% of those faced with the dilemma would choose to pull the hypothetical lever. This kills one person and saves the five who lie in the current path of the trolley. It is, of course, only a hypothetical. In the context of the stem cell register and being a potential match for someone with a life-threatening illness, the scenario is simpler.

This trolley, no longer hypothetical, is headed towards someone, and there is a real lever, which allows the trolley to take a different path, one with nobody on it. If this were just a hypothetical problem, every single time without fail, the lever would be pulled. Unfortunately, the vagaries of life cause things to be far more nuanced.

The charity Anthony Nolan match incredible people with sufferers of blood cancer and other blood disorders, to provide them with life-saving stem cell transplants. Anthony Nolan’s stem cell register, of potential donors, started in 1974 as the first in the world, and now exists in 50 countries. The whole system relies on public good will and the ability to publicise and increase awareness of the existence of the register. In the UK, one of the main methods of signing people up is through volunteer groups at universities. 

Over the last two years, Durham’s group, Durham Marrow, have signed up 612 people, at 31 different events. We experience a vast range of different engagements week-to-week. I have been laughed at, intensely ignored, and falsely told someone will “come back later” in a variety of disparaging ways. There are also the cases of people being enthused and understanding the potential positive impact they could have. Knowing that after signing up, the two options are that one would hear nothing, or have the opportunity to save a life, is often something that can appeal to the mindset of a well-meaning student.

After signing up, the two options are that you hear nothing, or you have the opportunity to save a life

The majority, however, fall into the middle category, who do not engage. They might sign up if their friends do, without really knowing what is involved, or more likely, nod along to the impassioned speech and walk past our table shortly after, moving on with their lives. 

Why do people walk on? How is it possible to accept a scenario where there are thousands of people waiting without a stem cell match, and not want to find out if they are that match? After over two years of volunteering, it becomes difficult to understand the apathy. In my opinion, people who are eligible to join the register, and yet choose not to do so, are misinterpreting the situation they are presented with in two ways. 

Firstly, a decision-making bias that we encounter in everyday life. If a family member or a close friend needed a stem cell donation, most of us would be the first in line to check if we were eligible, and then donate. However, when the need is from someone outside of our nuclear relationships, some feel an elevated level of indifference, which betrays a key bias. While we unquestionably would do anything for our loved ones, this should not preclude us from also doing good outside of our closest relationships. The people who need matches are still somebody’s child or best friend and that should be prominent in our minds.

One year old Baby Reign recently found his match to give him a chance of survival

Secondly, and most surprisingly, is that people do not believe that this is something that will benefit them. The NHS lists giving to others as one of their top five actions to help improve mental wellbeing, as doing so creates positive feelings, and senses of both purpose and self-worth. When you help others, you massively help yourself too and joining the stem cell register is a superb way to enact that.

When you help others, you massively help yourself too and joining the stem cell register is a superb way to enact that

The essence of pragmatic decision making comes with weighing up the positive and negative outcomes of any decision. Deciding not to sign up to the stem cell register has the downside that, if you have read to this point, you know that there could be a person that needs your help that you have chosen to ignore, and, the upside that you have to do nothing. Opting to sign up, you have the positive that in over 99% of cases, your life will be completely unaffected. The tiny fraction of the time that this is not the case, you have the opportunity, the honour, and the privilege to give a second chance at life to someone who has had very little hope, for comparably the smallest of inconveniences for you.

This inconvenience is further mitigated by Anthony Nolan. All expenses are paid for, including accommodation, travel, even lost earnings, and you have access to plenty of further support where required. If you are a match, you do not get bundled in the back of a van and driven immediately to a hospital, the process works in a way to suit you and your needs too. 

When making this argument, it is difficult to tread the line between a dispassionate coldness, simply laying out facts, and an appeal to raw emotion with pictures exemplifying the many examples of helpless parents facing the prospect of seeing their child slowly decline. Of course, the truth is that these are inseparable and intertwined. The stories, both negative and positive, are the explanation of a fact. The data only exists because thousands of people have lived through these situations. I can only do so much as try to illuminate how much of a difference you could make and implore you to be a person that helps, that acts, because without every individual signing up, there is no cure.

Find out more about Durham Marrow by visiting their Facebook Page or sign up to register at www.anthonynolan.org/durham

Images: anthonynolan.org

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