Two needles, two hours

Platelets: Apheresis donors, those who give blood platelets, have 75 percent of their blood drained, centrifuged and returned to their body.

January 27, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Every other Friday afternoon, Peter Fort leaves his job early, drives to Northwest Baltimore, lies back in a comfy chair and watches a movie -- with needles in both arms, one draining blood from his body and one sending it back.

It might sound grueling, but Fort leaves the Red Cross center relaxed, with just a slight chill from the cooling of his blood in a machine. "Get time off for it and watch a movie," said the 46-year-old Columbia resident. "What's not to like?"

Fort gives blood platelets -- formally called an apheresis donor -- a little-known but vital link in the nation's blood supply chain.

The Red Cross might be known as the place that needs whole blood, an easy enough image to resonate with the donating public. Blood drives are everywhere, and donation is easy -- the needle usually is in for about 10 minutes.

By comparison, apheresis donation is largely invisible -- a tougher, more time-consuming process that provides platelets to cancer patients and others whose bodies have lost the ability to make them. Without the disc-shaped platelets, the blood cannot clot.

"If your platelet count gets low enough, you will hemorrhage and die," said Sue Ellen Malone, manager of apheresis recruitment for the Greater Chesapeake and Potomac region of the Red Cross, which has seven donation centers in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Of the 5 percent of Americans who give blood, a tiny fraction are apheresis donors. The Greater Chesapeake region has about 4,000 regulars -- but frequently must import blood from places like the Midwest for the hospitals it serves.

When community blood centers and other sources are counted with the Red Cross, more than a million collections of platelets worldwide are taken from volunteer donors each year, according to Hemapheresis ONline, an information site for blood providers.

It's not the easiest process. For about two hours every two weeks, apheresis donors can "lend" their blood for the extraction of platelets. Over that period, 75 percent of their blood cycles through a centrifuge. They must lie stock-still.

The platelets come out in a separation bag looking like runny rice pudding; when they're mixed with plasma, they resemble orange juice.

Platelets survive five days outside the body -- compared with 42 days for whole blood -- so the timing of donations and deliveries is crucial. While platelets can be extracted from a typical blood donation, it takes many more of those donations to provide what an apheresis donor can give in one sitting.

Malone has praise for anyone who submits to the needle to give blood -- but platelet donors, she said, are an exceptionally hardy bunch. With a nor'easter swirling Tuesday, she found the Northwest Baltimore center on Mount Hope Drive full of platelet donors who had kept their appointments.

"It's not for everybody," she acknowledged. "You have your type A people who can't sit and keep their arms still for that long. But these people amaze me. They're in today, giving." Often people don't know about platelet donation until they -- or a loved one -- find themselves in need.

Chris Myers of Mount Airy, a property development analyst for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., didn't find out about apheresis until 1997, when his sister was diagnosed with cancer.

While Myers, 45, didn't match her blood type -- that was left to another brother -- he decided he wanted to help others in the same position. "There's a chance I may match somebody," he said.

Kathryn Pearce of Baltimore, who writes romance novels and mysteries, began donating after her husband, William, told her about it. With her apprehension of needles, she wasn't sure she could. "I was afraid," said Pearce, 50. "And then I thought, `This is ridiculous. There are people who need this product.' "

Many blood donors have another apprehension with platelet donation: the fear that their blood will pick up disease as it cycles through the machine.

Those fears are groundless, donors and Red Cross officials say. The blood cycles through a sterile, disposable kit of tubes -- each used one time only -- that prevents blood from touching the inside of the machine.

Being an apheresis donor is not without its discomforts, however. Myers could donate a little more often, but he worries about scar tissue forming on his arms. Occasionally his lips or fingers go a bit numb during donation, and once his nose was so itchy he had to summon a nurse to scratch it.

But he considers these minor inconveniences compared with the good his platelets can do.

Then there are those like Fort and Joe Chilcoat of Catonsville -- an owner of several 7-Eleven stores -- who consider their time hooked to the apheresis machine a forced break from the frenzy of work.

"It's sort of like going jogging -- it's really good when it's over," said Chilcoat, 47, covered by a blue blanket in the Red Cross center on a recent afternoon.

"I feel pretty satisfied with the time I invest here. This is a quiet little thing I can do."

Pub Date: 1/27/00

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