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Donors Share Gift of Life Through Advanced Blood Donations

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(Donor Burt Hulbert gives blood at the San Diego Blood Bank. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

Every year, tens of thousands of San Diegans donate blood, one pint at a time. A much smaller number of people go through a more advanced donation process called apheresis. This procedure allows donors to give plasma and other specific parts of their blood to people who need them. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

Some people give to charity. Others do volunteer work.  Every other week, Jim Walker comes into the San Diego Blood Bank in Hillcrest. Walker goes up to the 4th floor, gets a needle put in his arm, and donates certain parts of his blood.

Walker: This is something you can give back, and it basically doesn’t cost you anything but a little time. You know that you’re helping someone who needs it, and at that point, you’re doing the thing that’s right for them.

What Walker is doing is called apheresis . It’s a special kind of donation that uses a machine to separate blood into its three main components: plasma, platelets, and red blood cells.      

Nurse Diana Dela Cruz is in charge of the Blood Bank’s apheresis department. She stands next to Walker as the machine goes to work.

Dela Cruz : I always say it’s similar to a dialysis machine. It has pumps on it, it has a centrifuge well. It has a screen that displays a platelet bar, and a plasma bar, and a red cell bar. And we can see as it’s being spun out and the platelets are collecting and the plasma is collecting. We can see it visually on the screen how fast it’s filling up, what the time is for him, and when we know he’s done.

Dela Cruz: Right now he was just in the draw cycle. When you hear the difference in the pumps clicking back, he’s in a return cycle. So we draw the blood out of one line, and we return in the same line, with only using one needle.   

Shelly Werkheiser is hooked up to another machine a couple of beds away. She says it feels just like a regular blood donation.

Werkheiser: But then when the blood comes back in it’s a little bit colder temperature than your normal blood, so it’s kind of an interesting feeling. But it doesn’t really hurt.

Not everyone is a candidate for apheresis. There are certain height and weight requirements. Blood type is a factor, too. And donors have to be willing to spend about two hours to go through the process.

The San Diego Blood Bank’s office in Hillcrest does about 36 apheresis procedures on a busy day. Blood products have a very limited shelf life. Platelets, for example, expire in about five days. That’s why there’s a constant need for apheresis donors.   

Angie Freeman is one of the many people who benefit from these donations.

Freeman: I have aplastic anemia, I have lupus, and I have diabetes. They’re saying that lupus is the underlying cause of the aplastic anemia, and what that is, I just one day stopped producing red blood cells and platelets.

Over the past 13 years, Freeman has been to more doctors and hospitals than she cares to remember.

Freeman: I’ve also had 200 red blood cell transfusions, and I’ve had, I think it was ten platelet transfusions. Without these donations, where would you be? Dead.

That’s what keeps apheresis donors like Jim Walker coming back week after week.

Walker: You definitely feel that you’ve done something for your human race. And there’s some point in my life I may need it. So I’m just doing what I would want to do for my family. Everyone’s my family this way.

Last year, more than 66,000 people donated blood at the San Diego Blood Bank. About 7,000 did at least one apheresis procedure.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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