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Volume 60
Number 10
December 2009



Platelet Power
A loyal base of platelet donors sustains lives every day, but the need remains dire—especially during the holidays.


Platelet Power
Betsy McCaul gets chill relief from blood center nurse Chris Willis (in red) as transfusion coordinator Pat Kastal watches the process “like a hawk,” says McCaul. Donors are treated to a variety of movies and snacks during the 90-minute procedure.

Over the course of her decades-long career at Hopkins Hospital, Betsy McCaul likely passed the Blood Donor and Therapeutic Center sign on the first floor of the outpatient center hundreds of times. Yet it wasn’t until one day in 2005 that the school of medicine psychologist first noticed it.

McCaul, who had just lost her 19-year-old son, Sam, to leukemia, was “looking for ways to feel effective again,” to “make sense” of her loss. Recalling how platelet-depleted her son was—at the end of his life he needed platelets, the clotting portion of the blood, several times a day—McCaul marched into the blood donor center, shared her story and offered to help.

Since then, McCaul has been rolling up her sleeve regularly to donate platelets. She is among the roughly 300 volunteers who do the same at the center, run by the department of hemapheresis and transfusion support (HATS). But more help is needed, says the center’s manager Louanne Morell, particularly during the holiday season, when potential donors are either busy or out of town.

“I had no clue how critical the need was until it happened to me,” says McCaul. “Sam got very sick during the holidays, and I had this fear that the blood would be rationed because there was a shortage of donors.”

Platelets are in constant demand, primarily for the hundreds of cancer patients who need blot-clotting help. A team of eight HATS transfusion coordinators assigns the appropriate apheresis platelet product to the patient, working with the American Red Cross to procure the products and with the hospital’s Transfusion Medicine staff to prepare the donations. Donations to the blood donor center supplement this inventory and assure that platelet products are always available.

Since 1972, the center has provided platelets, most of which supports oncology patients. (The team also helps patients receiving organ transplants and those with other conditions requiring platelet transfusions.) Last year, the hospital used 19,225 bags of platelets—more than 50 bags a day.

What sets HATS apart from other transfusion centers, explains Morell, is that the team collects blood via apheresis machines exclusively. In conventional blood collection, whole blood is drawn and separated into components—plasma, red blood cells and platelets. Thus one bag of suitable platelets requires six to eight different donors, posing a risk of side effects, like allergic reactions and unnecessary exposure to numerous donors.

“Here at Hopkins,” says Morell, “platelet donations are always one to one. Otherwise, the results could be problematic for our cancer patients.”

Pat Kastal, lead medical technologist, has been with the center since it opened. “We try to put people [especially those who are uncomfortable about needles] at ease here and keep them engaged,” says Kastal. “After all, they’re doing us a huge favor.”

Until the 1980s, says Kastal, platelet donation took four hours (now it takes 90 minutes). Patients sometimes died because the staff couldn’t procure blood fast enough.

Recently HATS staff started sending out cards to thank and inform people about where their donations went (without using names). McCaul learned that hers went to a 58-year-old man. “That was the best gift they could have given me,” she says. “From children to senior citizens, those blood products are going to very vulnerable people. It feels good to be part of something this important.”


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