Help Wanted: The Body’s Tiny Repair Crew Needs Reinforcements

July 25, 2013

UHS blood bank needs more platelet donors to help trauma, cancer patients

Nick yourself shaving or on the sharp edge of slick paper, and the wound is usually forgotten after a few minutes. That’s because of tiny, colorless cells in the blood called platelets that race to the scene to stop the bleeding.

But in the case of a life-threatening injury — not uncommon in a busy Level 1 trauma center like University Hospital — or in patients with conditions in which severe blood loss is a problem, the need for platelets as a medical treatment is huge.

With demand for blood products high in the summer and vacations affecting donations, University Health System’s blood bank is working to raise awareness about the need for platelet donors. Lots of platelet donors.

Platelets have a shorter shelf life than a gallon of milk. Unlike plasma, which can be frozen for a year; and red blood cells, which can be stored for 42 days; platelets can be kept only five days. Subtract the hours it takes for collection and processing, and it’s clear why a constant stream of donors is needed.

“Some of my longtime platelet donors do it because they had a family member that needed a lot of platelets,” said Sherrie Warner, supervisor of blood donor services at the Health System. “Or maybe they’ve dealt with a patient who needed platelets and were willing to donate. Almost all donations are out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Each month, almost 250 units of platelets are transfused into University Health System patients. But less than half that amount is collected by the blood bank from donors. The rest must be purchased — at a cost of $595 per unit. Collecting it in-house saves the Health System about $252 per unit — a much greater savings than for other types of blood products — and helps assure a reliable supply for patients, Warner said.

In addition to trauma patients, platelets are often needed for procedures such as open heart surgery and liver transplants, and for cancer patients whose platelet-making bone marrow is damaged by chemotherapy. More than 2,000 Health System patients required platelets last year.

“Platelets kind of form a plug,” said Dr. Geralyn Meny, medical director of the blood bank and director of transfusion medicine at the UT Health Science Center. “If there’s a hole in the blood vessel, they work with the plasma proteins, the clotting factors, to plug the hole. And if you don’t have any platelets, the only way you can get them is from a transfusion.”

Fortunately, platelet donors can safely donate monthly — compared to every other month for red cells. And those who give are getting back some added incentives this year to encourage potential donors to think about giving platelets — including movie passes, gift cards and raffle entries. In addition, University Health System employees can accumulate extra paid time off.

For more information about donating, call 358-2812.