“I didn’t know anything about it before,” he said. “You don’t think of it until someone you know gets sick.”
Alicia Santana, a leukemia survivor who depended on platelets, and her husband Michael, who became a donor, take a walk with their daughter, Michelle, 3.
While many people are still unaware of platelet donation, the need is on the rise, according to Dr. Isaak. Cancer patients frequently need platelets following chemotherapy, he said, because in the process of killing cancer cells, the better, more advanced therapies also reduce the platelet count.
Other patients who frequently need platelets include those who have undergone a trauma or need surgery.
“Nothing will motivate people more than firsthand experience, either meeting someone affected or having a loved one involved in a tragedy,” Dr. Isaak said. “We tend to react, but people need to be proactive.”
Unlike blood, which has a shelf life of 42 days, platelets need to be used within five days of donation, he said. It also takes about two hours to donate platelets in a process called apheresis, which separates the platelets from the rest of the blood and then returns the remainder back to the donor.
Donors can give platelets every 72 hours, up to twice per week and 24 times per year, Dr. Isaak said. The hospital receives about 400 donations yearly, which is far fewer than the 2,500 they need. The rest is purchased from the New York Blood Center (NYBC).
“We are always five days away from potential disaster,” said Harvey Schaffler, NYBC executive director of donor marketing, referring to platelets’ short shelf life.
“To meet the need, we have to collect platelets every day. The only days we don’t collect are Christmas Day and Thanksgiving, and even then we do it with some trepidation,” he continued.
In 2011, Schaffler said the NYBC collected more than 80,000 platelet donations, which were used in the greater New York area. On Staten Island, residents can donate blood and platelets at Brooklyn/Staten Island Blood Services in New Springville.
Many of those who donate platelets originated as blood donors, Schaffler said. To ensure the NYBC receives enough platelets, staff members continually schedule their regular donors to keep the supply flowing.
“We really want to make sure blood and platelets are immediately available at all hospitals in the greater New York area when a patient needs it,” Schaffler said, adding, “None of us knows when we might be the patient. Accidents are one of the leading indicators for the use of platelets and blood in general.”
Joan Chelsen of Graniteville has been donating platelets since 1996 when a co-worker was diagnosed with cancer. But it wasn’t until 2005, when her brother, Roy, a firefighter who survived the World Trade Center attacks on September 11 and spent time working on the recovery effort, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma that the need fully hit home.
“When we found out it was a blood cancer, we knew he’d need chemo and platelets,” Ms. Chelsen said. “I started broadcasting it loud and clear to everyone around me to get to a blood center and donate platelets, even if it doesn’t go to Roy.”
Photo Courtesy of Joan Chelsen
Roy Chelsen, a firefighter on 9/11 who helped with the recovery effort, and his sister Joan before his diagnosis of multiple myeloma in 2005. Ms. Chelsen organized many blood drives and continues to donate after her brother's death in 2011.
She organized multiple blood drives as well as bone marrow registry drives — Roy Chelsen also received a bone marrow transplant — to raise awareness of the need for the different types of donation. Ms. Chelsen’s brother went into remission in 2007, but the cancer returned the following year and he lost his battle with the disease in 2011.
Despite her loss, Ms. Chelsen continues to donate and advocates for more people to do so as well.
As she puts it, “I’m lucky to be a healthy individual, and if the tables were ever turned on me and I needed platelets, I’d want to know they’d be there for me.”