“If there’s a blood product we stress about in the blood bank, then many times over, it’s what’s happening with our platelet inventory,” said Marshall Mazepa, Medical Director of UNC Hospitals Blood Donation Center.
Students account for about 80 percent of donors during the school year but as little as 10 to 15 percent when the student body isn’t at full strength, Blood Donation Center supervisor Tom Neish said. To make up for the discrepancy during the summer and winter recesses, the center must solicit donations from the community, with mixed results.
The need for platelets is distinct from the need for red blood cells, Mazepa said. While traditional blood drives provide red blood cells that are crucial for a multitude of treatments, they don’t provide platelets that many of the sickest patients in the hospital need.
“There isn’t really a shortage of red blood cells during the summer time as much,” Mazepa said. “Blood can be put in the fridge for 42 days, so it’s much easier to maintain the blood supply because it stays in the fridge for a long time, whereas platelets are only good for five days. And half of that time, we’re waiting for the testing to come back.”
Accounting for testing, he said, there’s just a three day window when a platelet unit can be given to a patient. He added that while the hospital regularly has two or three hundred units of whole blood, its platelet inventory is typically limited to about 10 units.
UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell said platelet donations from the blood donation center saved her life after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2013.
“There may not be anybody that’s had more platelets from over there than I’ve had,” Hatchell, who has been in remission for almost three years, said. “We call them liquid gold.”
Donor Recruiter Bridgit Schmidt said the best outreach strategy is donors recruiting other donors. To encourage donors to bring friends, the center offers free movie tickets to AMC Theatres to groups of two or more and free pizza to groups of three or more.
“People don’t realize how important it is to do something like that until you’re on the other end, until you need them,” Hatchell said.
“The last two years, during holiday season, they would contact me from over there and say, ‘Coach, you know, we’re low on platelets.’ So I’d put an email out to the athletic department and say ‘Hey, anybody that can go over and give platelets, please do that,’” Hatchell said.
“We don’t realize what a tremendous resource the campus is,” she said. “The 20-some thousand students living here...”
The center also works to communicate the impact a donor has on a patient by sending an email explaining who he or she is helping.
“About three weeks after you donate, you receive an email with the age, gender and diagnosis of the exact patient you’ve helped,” Schmidt said. “And (for) many people, that kind of takes their breath away.”
“It’s the easiest way to save a life,” Schmidt said.
“I want to say thank you to all the people who give blood and platelets,” Hatchell said. “I mean a personal thank you. Because like I said, it saved my life. There’s no doubt about it.”
Donors can schedule appointments at http://unchplateletdonation.genbook.com or at 984-974-8290.