Most people know about the value of donating blood, but fewer are aware of the need to donate platelets.
Many patients undergoing chemotherapy (as well as accident victims, organ donor recipients, and other critically ill patients) need platelets, as well as blood transfusions. Platelets — nature’s Band-Aids — control clotting.
Extremely low counts can cause bruising and life-threatening hemorrhages. Those with cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, can have a low platelet count to begin with as abnormal white blood cells impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce platelets as well as red blood cells.
Because platelets only have a shelf life of five days, compared to 42 days for red blood, the need to donate them is continuous.
A normal platelet count is 150,000 to 450,000 parts per microliter (one millionth of a liter). That mouthful is abbreviated, so that when I had only 2,000 platelets during chemotherapy for leukemia, they said I had two. You can imagine a patient’s panic when she is in the emergency room and someone is shouting, “She only has two platelets!”
I wondered if I might bleed to death.
Cancer patients may need continuous transfusions, and, unlike when receiving blood, their system can become resistant to normal donor platelets. This is known as failure to get a bump. The nurses came into my hospital room and performed their “platelet dance,” jumping around and waving their arms.
After multiple transfusions, I (and other patients like me) could only tolerate platelets matched according to HLA, or Human Leukocyte Antigen, an inherited protein molecule. Unmatched platelets caused me to break out in hives and shake like crazy (rigors), burning off any chance of a bump.
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s blood donor center had several donors who were a good match for me. One of them was my sister. Donors can give platelets once within a seven-day period, up to six times in an 8-week period and 24 times a year. My sister wasn’t eligible one day when I was desperately in need. I was told to lie quietly and to avoid bumping into things.
The blood bank called a man who went in and donated just for me. Donors can only imagine the relief of a patient who receives that generous gift.
A sign of low platelets is the appearance of petechiae, tiny red dots on the skin. I always knew my platelets were low before a blood test confirmed it.
Donating platelets used to take longer than donating blood, but now the process has been streamlined. Only one of your arms is used to withdraw blood, filter out the platelets, and return the rest of the blood to you during the 70-90 minute procedure. This is in addition to the time it takes you to complete your registration form and have your medical history taken, for a total of about 2 1/2 hours.
You can donate platelets once within a seven-day period. You may donate up to six times in an 8-week period and 24 times a year. After the donation you can resume your normal activities, avoiding heavy lifting or strenuous exercise that day.
You can donate blood at a cancer center near you or find out about American Red Cross blood donation centers by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS.
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