Hemapheresis Center Drives To Save Lives Mike Field -------------------------- Staff Writer When Nancy Roth got sick, she feared the holidays. A 1989 diagnosis of stage III non-Hodgkins lymphoma meant her only hope for survival was to undergo massive, near-lethal radiation treatments and chemotherapy. So powerful were the drugs employed against the cancer that her body would lose its ability to produce the blood cells and platelets necessary for life. In order to survive the treatment, she would have to have an autologous bone marrow transplant in which her own bone marrow is harvested, treated with a drug, frozen and returned after the most intensive phase of the chemotherapy was completed. During the course of the ordeal--and for some time thereafter as her body slowly recovered--Roth would need frequent transfusions of blood components, including, often, daily supplies of platelets, the cells that enable blood to clot. But platelets are in perennially short supply, especially around the holidays. "It was scary to think my well-being hinged on someone's willingness to donate platelets during the holidays," said Roth, who has been cancer-free for more than five years now. "Platelets only last a few days, so I was told there might come some time when they simply wouldn't be available, because to get them, someone has to go down and sit for two hours on the machine." "The machine" Roth refers to is a sophisticated piece of medical equipment that draws blood from a donor's arm, separates blood cells, saves the platelets and returns the remaining components to the donor through the other arm. A centrifuge spinning at 1600 rpms within the device performs the actual separation; donors spend 100 minutes attached to the machine, generally time enough to process six or seven pints of blood. The Hopkins Hemapheresis Center has a baker's dozen machines ready to collect platelets at its headquarters on the eighth floor of the East Baltimore campus's 550 Building. The problem is finding donors enough to keep the machines busy. "Currently among the university and the hospital we have about 190 employees who donate," said Pat Brodsky, donor development coordinator for the Hemapheresis Center. She considers the participation rate relatively low, but speaks optimistically of doubling the number of employee donors in the next year or so. "Generally people become donors when someone they know develops cancer and needs platelet transfusions," she said. "Most people aren't even aware that there is a need, or that platelet donation exists." To encourage new donors, the Hemapheresis Center will be conducting a public awareness campaign in both the university and the hospital during the next 24 months. On a typical day the center is a locus of activity as nurses and technicians interview potential donors, oversee donations and provide the coordination necessary to guarantee patients receive the appropriate platelet transfusions. Right now the center collects about 70 percent of the daily need. Additional platelets are purchased from outside vendors that obtain them at collection sites around the country. Unfortunately, only about half of those who inquire are eligible to donate, said Brodsky, since relatively common conditions ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes disqualify donors. At the collection center in a brightly lit open area of the building, special reclining chairs are arranged in two rows, one next to each machine. A television hooked to a VCR plays Woody Allen's Hannah and her Sisters as two donors pay half-hearted attention. Melisa Dunkes, a registered nurse on the neuroscience unit at Bayview naps beneath covers on a chair not far from the television. A gentle nudge from one of the monitoring technicians wakes her up. "I was going to watch the movie but I got bored," Dunkes said over the steady drone of the machine beside her. "Sometimes it's nice to just lie here and go to sleep." Dunkes agreed to come down to the center on her day off after receiving a call from donor scheduler Debbie Butler, whom she has gotten to know in the four years she's been making donations. Platelet supplies were running low and Dunkes' help, she was told, would be appreciated. So she came. "I give as often as I can, and when I forget, they call me," said Dunkes, who became a donor when a relative's friend needed platelets during his treatment for leukemia. Dunkes sports a "Thanks for Helping Me" T shirt designed by one of the children who received platelets at the Children's Center. It is, she has found, a good way to spread the word about the need for platelets. "I tell anyone who is interested about the center because it is important," she said. "It only takes about two hours of time, but that's a small price to pay considering you can potentially keep somebody alive. I tell Debbie to call me whenever it's slow." Because the machines remove only platelets--a relatively small portion of whole blood--and return the rest, platelet donors can safely give as many as 24 times each year. No side effects are generally experienced and a donor's platelets are fully replaced by the body within 72 hours of the donation. Cancer survivor Nancy Roth talks about the meaning of life, of sunsets in Maine and a first trip to Oregon and the chance to see her daughter's wedding, when she speaks before groups on behalf of the Hopkins Hemapheresis Center. Without the help of donors like Melisa Dunkes--all of them strangers and most of whom she will never meet--Roth and many others like her would have no hope for survival. It is, she says, the true miracle of medicine, more startling and profound than the technology that made it possible to give one's healthy platelets to someone who desperately needs them. "On each occasion I wondered if there would be platelets available to me, and every time there was," she said. "I learned that there are just some people good enough to make this gift, even during the holidays or at times when it might not be convenient. It gives you hope." Individuals willing to help fight cancer by donating platelets should contact the Hopkins Hemapheresis Center at (410)955-8463.
Go to Gazette Homepage