Extending the arm of friendship Making treatment easier to take

September 15, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Due to an editing error, a Sept. 15 article about people who donate platelets, cells that help the blood clot, at Johns Hopkins Hospital misspelled the word for platelet collection. The correct spelling is hemapheresis.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Brian Devlin seemed to be shrinking before his friends' eyes. Stricken with leukemia, he was receiving gut-wrenching courses chemotherapy that would eventually cure him. But the cure was torture.

He had turned completely bald and lost 35 pounds before his treatment ended. He was nauseated much of the time, looked pale as a ghost and felt so weak he could barely get out of bed.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Colleagues at the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a nonprofit agency where Mr. Devlin worked before taking an indefinite leave of absence, found a way to help. Five of them began making regular pilgrimmages to the Johns Hopkins Hemophoresis Center, a blood center across North Broadway from the hospital where Mr. Devlin was being treated.

There, they donated platelets, blood cells that get destroyed as chemotherapy goes about its take-no-prisoners mission to rid the body of cancer. Without regular transfusions of platelets, many cancer patients would never survive chemotherapy.

Platelets are essential for clotting. Without them, a simple cut can turn into a gushing wound. A tiny brain bleed, the type that should clot instantly, could mean catastrophe.

"If you've got a leak in your brain and you don't have platelets, you've got a stroke," said Sue Wright, technical director at the hemophoresis center, which supplies many of Hopkins' chemotherapy patients with platelets and other blood components.

Platelets are matched to recipients in a complex tissue-typing process, and the odds are 1 in 1,000 that a donor will match any given patient. Consequently, donors don't really know who will benefit from their gifts, despite the fact many are motivated to give once they see friends or loved-ones battle cancer.

This didn't keep Mr. Devlin from feeling a spiritual connection to friends who gave. "To donate for an unknown recipient -- that truly is the most precious gift you can give," he said.

A single donation supplies one transfusion to one patient. Between 20 and 50 donors are needed to support each patient, according to theHopkins hemophoresis center, which supplies about half its own platelet needs and purchases the rest from the Red Cross.

It's been nearly five years since Mr. Devlin's friends began their tradition of giving platelets. The other day, a few of them gathered at the center to roll up their sleeves another time, and to help celebrate the center's 20th anniversary.

"There's something satisfying about being healthy and feeling like you're doing something to share your health," said Teresa Cattaneo of Baltimore.

Jesse Alfriend, who donates every three months, said it was hard to watch his friend's rapid deterioration but gratifying to find some practical way to help.

Donating platelets takes about 100 minutes, but people give up a few hours once they add travel time and a short interview beforehand to make sure they are healthy enough to donate.

The process causes little discomfort. Blood flows out a tube in one arm and through a machine that extracts platelets and a little plasma, yielding an amber liquid that looks a little grainy when held to the light. The remaining blood components, however, flow into the other arm and are recycled into the body.

Mr. Devlin, now 42, has made a remarkable recovery, thanks in part to anonymous platelet donors who helped him get through two months of chemotherapy. He exudes energy, works full-time, and hasn't had a single relapse since his treatment. And last week, he reached an important milestone when his doctor declared he didn't need to see him on an outpatient basis anymore.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about the people who gave platelets," Mr. Devlin said. "It really does make the difference between life and death."

Donation centers

Three centers in Baltimore take donations of blood components:Johns Hopkins Hemophoresis Center: 955-8463

American Red Cross: 764-000. Ext.423, or (800) 272-2123

University of Maryland Cancer Center: 328-7508

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