Wednesday 26 June 2019

What are platelet donations? A donor and a doctor explain this life-saving treatment

There is an increased awareness of the importance of blood donation these days but platelet donation remains something of a mystery to many people.

The Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) is launching a new campaign to recruit platelet donors and to increase the public understanding of what platelets are and why they’re needed. There are currently only 2,000 platelet donors in Ireland and the shelf life for platelets is only five to seven days.

Platelets are often required during the treatment of patients with cancer and leukemia, who may require bone marrow transplantation. Platelets may also be required in the treatment of very small, newborn babies and in those who have suffered burns. The rising number of cancer diagnoses mean that there’s always a need for donations. Yet many people have never heard of platelet donation.

To find out more, we spoke to a platelet donor and a consultant intensivist in Temple Street Children’s University Hospital.

A donor’s story

For Kyran O’Brien, a photographer and video journalist, the need for platelet donations hit home with the tragic passing of a childhood friend.

“When I was donating blood at my local GAA club, a nurse said to me ‘Would you ever think about donating platelets?’” he recalls. “I didn’t know what they were. She explained it to me and that’s where it all started. 

“There was also a friend of mine who got very sick and she needed a platelet donation. She also needed bone marrow. I’m on the bone marrow transplant list as well. She didn’t get enough and she passed away. It was a girl I grew up with and donating was something that I could do that could maybe help someone else. That’s basically the reason I do it. It was a two-pronged thing.”

Kyran estimates that he’s donated around 150 times and the trip to the National Blood Centre beside St James’ Hospital every four weeks is now just part of his routine. IBTS have two platelet donation clinics in Dublin and Cork.

A platelet donation is like giving blood except the blood is passed through a special cell separator machine which extracts the platelets from the blood. As donors keep their red cells during the donation process, it is possible to donate every 28 days.

“With platelets, you can do almost anything after donating. You wouldn’t be able to go out and play an All-Ireland final but you can basically do your daily work! I work late on a Friday and I normally go into the National Blood Centre beside St James Hospital on a Friday morning before work.”

Kryan’s monthly trip is more than worth it, knowing the impact that it will have on people who desperately need platelets.

“I would just say it’s lifechanging for people. It’s a small gift that comes from me and all it costs me is my time. It doesn’t cost me any money. It doesn’t take anything from my health. It’s just my time and taking a conscious decision to go in every four weeks and do this small thing for someone who is less fortunate, whether they are suffering from cancer or a premature baby or someone who’s had a very bad accident.

“There are not enough donors. They’re crying out for platelets but it makes such a big difference when they get them. It’s an immediate change. It’s like a magic potion. It changes their life.”

A doctor’s view

Dr Cathy Gibbons, a consultant in Paediatric Intensive Care at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital, sees first-hand the difference that these donations can have.

“Platelets are a tiny part of our blood that have an important role in helping us to form a clot if there is bleeding from a blood vessel,” Dr Gibbons explains. “Without them, the simplest bump or cut could become very serious and even life-threatening as the healing process cannot start and bleeding can be very difficult to control.”

The criteria to become a platelet donor is that you are aged between 18 and 59, over 60kg, and able to travel to the IBTS’s fixed platelet donation centres in the National Blood Centre in Dublin (on the St James Hospital campus) or to St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork every four weeks. You cannot donate platelets if you’ve ever been pregnant, if you’ve had a blood transfusion or if you’re required to take aspirin or anti-inflammatories on a regular basis.

Dr Gibbons encourages anyone who can donate platelets to do so. If you make a donation, you can be sure that it will go to help someone who really needs it.

“There are many babies, children and adults in Ireland who have low numbers of platelets or platelets that do not work well. Platelets are most often used by children and adults undergoing chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant. They are often unable to make new platelets and are completely dependent on donated platelets to survive. Other patients who use platelets are those who had major injuries or surgery with severe blood loss and patients in intensive care units who are very unwell.”

Children with cancer are dependent on blood and platelet donations to stay alive while they undergo chemotherapy treatment. A donation is literally a gift of life for these young patients.

“A platelet donation is a life-saving treatment for many patients. For two hours of your time once a month, you could help save 12 lives a year. The babies, children and adults who need platelets are some of the sickest people in Ireland, and to be able to do something so powerful and life changing is an incredible gift. 

“We don’t have enough donors to keep up with demand at the moment, and we know as doctors and nurses that every donation is precious.  Making the decision to become a platelet donor is making the decision to become a lifesaver, and I urge anyone who is interested to contact the IBTS for more  information.”

To find out if you can donate platelets, call 01 4322833 (Dublin) or 021 4807429 (Cork) to speak to one of our staff or see the website for more information.  You can also support Temple Street Children’s University Hospital by clicking here.

Sponsored by: IBTS

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