Bone Marrow Biopsies (and 99 other things to avoid experiencing before you die)

by shaysemmens

I have now had two bone marrow biopsies in my life. The first was over 5 and a half years ago, and the second was yesterday. They were both very, very, different experiences. As such, I feel the only way to give the ‘bone marrow biopsy’ an appropriate run-through would be to describe both of them.

To start with though, I’ll give you a short run down as to what a bone marrow biopsy (at least in both examples that I’ve had them) entails. Basically, whilst you lie on your side, a doctor shoves a needle into your back (your pelvic bone, to be exact) and extracts first some fluid and then a solid piece, which feels like the doctor is removing a small slither of your bone, the size of a match stick. (Technically, I’m describing two different things, but they’ve always been a package deal when I’ve had them done – so for a better explanation, see here.)

Now that you have a basic idea of what the procedure actually is, let me continue with the two examples, which were two very different experieces. I will say this though, if you need to have a bone marrow biopsy done any time soon (or if there’s a likelihood that you’ll ever have to have one done) I would skip the first example. It is not going to be pretty.

Bone Marrow Biopsy #1

As I said, the first bone marrow biopsy I had was almost 6 years ago now. As such, my memory of the event isn’t quite complete – but I don’t think I’ll ever completely forget the experience. The procedure was not undertaken in a hospital, but rather in small side room within a private clinic. Not knowing what to expect, this didn’t send off any warning signals in my mind at the time. Due to the fact that I wasn’t actually in a hospital (I assume that’s the reason why) I was not given any drugs except for a local anaesthetic in my lower back in preparation for the needle.
I remember thinking when the needle first went in that they had accidentally poured whatever was in the needle down my back. However, it didn’t take long for me to realise that was actually my own blood. This thought didn’t occupy my thoughts for long however, as all thoughts quickly turned to how much pain I was in. To get the bone marrow the needle must first break through the bone, for obvious reasons. However, apparently I had had way too much calcium in my life as my bone appeared to be unbreakable. Two nurses/doctors/whoever they were took turns attempting to break the needle through my bone, without much luck. All the while, I could feel not only the pain of the pressure as they pushed as hard as they could against my bone, but also the pain as the needle slid across my bone after failing to push through. The best example of this I can give is to imagine pushing a pen down on concrete as hard as you can, and watch as it slips and slides on the concrete, not able to break through. Only, in this case, my bone was the concrete, and it is covered in nerves.
I was pulling at my hair, probably almost tearing it out, through the whole thing.
They finally did manage to break through, and once in the bone, in order to bring out the solid piece they need, they wedge the needle from side to side as they pull it out. This is, as you can imagine, also extruciatingly painful.
Finally, they managed to get the needle out – where they revealed to me that they had failed to actually get the required sample, and they would have to start over.

This experience lasted – I think (I was pretty out of it – not on drugs, but in pain) about 20 minutes and was quite probably the worst thing I’ve ever been through. It was bad enough that I cut back on dairy products in the hopes that my bones would become more brittle if I ever had to do it again. It was also bad enough that I joked that if I ever had to do another bone marrow biopsy, I would simply choose death instead. Apparently, though, that wasn’t the choice I would eventually make – as I had another bone marrow biopsy yesterday. I wasn’t looking forward to it, obviously, but in the end, these things are for our own good, and there isn’t really a choice.

Bone Marrow Biopsy #2

This time around, the bone marrow biopsy was to be performed at the Austin Hospital. That did give me some hope that they’d actually drug me up a little, considering that’s where I had had my two recent liver biopsies were (by the way, I had another one last week – it was pretty painful. I think I had convinced myself that the previous one hadn’t hurt as much as it did). This time around, I lay in a bed in the day surgery department and a doctor came around to me to explain the exact procedure. He also explained that I’d get some sedation and painkillers and it would not be like the previous time I had had the procedure. This did put me at ease a little, but what I didn’t expect was how little it actually did hurt.
When I was wheeled into the room, there was some rather loud piano music playing (a nice, unexpected, touch) and the doctor explained everything he was going to do before he did it. They gave me some sedation (not enough to fall asleep) and the only part that really hurt was the local anaesthetic going in (which is painful, but obviously it’s for the greater good). Honestly during the procedure there was very minimal pain and when the doctor told me he was done, I was shocked. He had me roll over onto my back so I could take a photo of the needle he used to pierce my pelvic bone, as I’d already told him, along with the nurse, about my blog. See the picture below.
Marrow needle (Medium)

So, as you can see, the two experiences were just about polar opposites of one another. Neither was an overly pleasant experience – but honestly yesterday’s bone marrow biopsy hurt less than the liver biopsies, which I never would have expected. I guess the moral of the story is – if you have to have something done – go to the Austin, because they actually know what they’re doing.