UNC Blood Donation Center: 20 years helping donors give life

By collecting platelets, the Center is helping to provide UNC Medical Center with a steady and stable supply of a blood product that is very expensive and very difficult to obtain. For donors, many of whom are Medical Center employees, it’s a way to have a positive and possibly life-saving impact on the life of a stranger.

UNC Blood Donation Center: 20 years helping donors give life click to enlarge Tom Neish next to an apheresis machine

 A unit of platelets in the lab is not a terribly impressive sight: a thin, pale yellow liquid in a bag that is kept constantly moving to simulate the conditions inside the body. But each one of these bags – and the 3300 like it that will be collected this year at the UNC Blood Donation Center – will play an invaluable role in someone’s life.

This one will go to a 65-year-old man with pulmonary disease. That one will go to a 20-year-old woman undergoing a bone marrow transplant. A third is given to a small child with leukemia.

“Our donations go to the sickest of the sick,” says Tom Neish, supervisor of the Blood Donation Center. “And the units we collect never leave the hospital.”

Never leave, that is, until patients who have received them have been discharged.

The UNC Blood Donation Center, which first opened its doors in Chapel Hill in 1997 and moved into its current space in 2009, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. Rather than collecting whole blood, the center collects platelets, a component of the blood that is a crucial part of the clotting process.

“A platelet,” explains Neish, “is a little tiny piece of a cell that floats around in your body. When your blood vessels are injured they release a chemical that the platelets stick to. A bunch of platelets will stick on the damage vessel and form a platelet plug. They then release a signal that tells the body to release the clotting factors to patch the hole. Platelets are the first responders in the blood.”

Platelets can be life-saving for everyone from a leukemia patient, to someone undergoing a very invasive surgical procedure like a heart transplant, to a baby on ECMO treatment.

By collecting donation in-house, the Blood Donation Center provides UNC Medical Center with a reliable source of these invaluable cells. This means that the Center is not only able to provide a cost-savings to the hospital – the cost of platelets collected at the hospital is significantly less than it is when they are purchased from a third party – but also that the Medical Center has a steady supply of platelets in the event that blood products on the market need to be redirected, as happened last month after the tragedy in Las Vegas.

The donation process itself is relatively simple. A line is inserted that runs into an apheresis machine, which separates and collects the platelets, then returns the blood to the body. It can take between 45 minutes and two hours to complete a collection, but depending on the size of the donor and their platelet count – something that can be determined while they are donating – they can sometimes opt to donate up to three units per session. That’s three different people who can be helped thanks to one generous donor.

And because the blood is returned to the body after the platelets have been collected, it is possible to donate platelets more often than one can donate whole blood and the process is easier to recover from. Neish says that they don’t recommend strenuous exercise after a donation, but that it’s definitely less taxing. Platelets can be donated every 48 hours, twice a week, up to 24 times a year.

“We definitely have donors who come to the donation center as often as they are able and donate 24 times a year,” says Neish.

The Blood Donation Center works hard to make the donation experience as pleasant as possible, from creature comforts like comfy apheresis chairs to material enticements like movie tickets for donors who schedule in groups of two or more. Daria Guinn, a lab technician in the McLendon Clinical Laboratories’ Core Lab, says that the friendly staff makes coming back something to look forward to.

“The staff is superb and my experience donating is never disappointing. That’s why I keep coming back! With my hours at work it is easy for me to donate directly after work so the hours of operation are very convenient for my schedule.”

Andrew Sharf, RN, a data manager in the UNC Bone Marrow Transplant Program, says he tries to donate once every three weeks. Since he first came to UNC Medical Center in 2004, Sharf has donated over 90 times.

“The ability to donate more often than whole blood is a bonus for me as it makes me feel like I can help more often,” he says. “While I no longer provide bedside care for patients as I did when I first came to Chapel Hill, my current position requires me to track our bone marrow transplant patients throughout the transplant process and beyond. Going through these patients’ charts I read about the struggles they have both during cancer treatments and the transplant therapies. Donating platelets is my small way to help these patients through what must be a very difficult time for both them and their families.”

The Blood Donation Center helps put a story with every unit that is donated by keeping track of who gets each unit and letting donors know exactly where their platelets go.

Guinn gets a firsthand look every day at how desperately some of these patients need platelets. It only drives the point home further about how important platelet donation can be to these people and their families.

“I’m the one who tests the patient samples in the Core lab and I am the first to see how critically low the platelet count really is for some of these patients,” she says. “Donating platelets gives me reassurance because I know that within a few days these patients can have improvement and that my donation has had an impact on the patients’ well-being. And I really enjoy seeing where my donations go; it really brings the experience full circle. I see the patient sample and that patient has low platelets. I donate and it’s possible that my platelets will go to that patient I just resulted. It is very satisfying.”

Want to donate? Set up an appointment at https://www.genbook.com/bookings/slot/reservation/30017895. Have questions about the process? Contact the UNC Blood Donation Center at platelet@unch.unc.edu or 984-974-8290.

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