Health Care

August 4, 2013

‘Regulars’ donate platelets often to save lives

Every other Sunday, Edward Little wakes up before sunrise and helps save people’s lives.

Every other Sunday, Edward Little wakes up before sunrise and helps save people’s lives.

The best part is that he does it lounging in a recliner while playing on his iPad.

Little is a longtime platelet donor at the Columbia Red Cross Donation Center on Bull Street, one of several who, bright and early while the city sleeps in, choose to donate the colorless blood component vital to cancer and organ transplant treatments.

Unlike blood, which can only be donated every two months, platelets can be donated as often as once a week, up to 24 times a year, leading Little and other donors to make donating platelets a regular part of their lives.

“I’ve just gotten in a routine,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

Little always arrives right when the center opens at 6 a.m. For about two hours, he reclines on a padded coach watching YouTube videos on his iPad while his blood runs through a complicated-looking machine next to him that collects platelets and some plasma from his blood and returns the red blood cells.

The platelets, cell fragments that help with blood clotting, are sent to local hospitals and used to help patients with weakened immune systems, like those undergoing chemotherapy. The platelets must be transfused within five days of donation, creating a constant need for donors.

The Red Cross recently issued an emergency request for platelet and blood donors after receiving fewer donations than expected during June and the first week of July. Donations often decrease during the summer months while regular donors adjust to different schedules and high school and college blood drives slow down.

Most platelet donors, like Little, donate regularly, at the same time and on the same day of the week, and many get to know each other and the Red Cross workers.

Donors and workers said it creates a warm, welcoming environment that feels more social than medical, encouraging donors to come back. That’s especially true on Sundays one donor compared it to the atmosphere of the bar in the sitcom Cheers – when the center only accepts platelets.

Virginia Rexrode, another longtime donor who gives on Sunday mornings, said she enjoyed visiting with the Red Cross workers and sharing stories about their families and lives. She encouraged others to make time to donate.

“It’s not a duty; it’s a privilege,” she said.

Because the platelet donation process returns red blood cells back to the donor, most people don’t experience the light-headedness and weakness associated with giving blood. The process can cause a tingling sensation that can be counteracted by eating calcium-rich foods before donating or during by taking calcium supplements.

The Columbia Red Cross donation center is the only one in the Midlands that accepts platelet donations, averaging 20 to 25 donors per day The center also accepts blood donations and hosts numerous blood drives throughout the Midlands.

Red Cross employee Janice Roberts works in platelet donation and said that most donors bring a book to read or watch TV on flat screens suspended from the ceiling. Some, wanting to stay productive, bring a laptop to check email and surf the web.

Roberts noted that most platelet donors tend to be more than 60 years old and that the center is looking to attract younger donors as well. She said donating at the center was gratifying for both donors and workers.

“It really is a great place to be,” she said. “You know you’re helping.”

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