Not everyone has heard of an apheresis donation, or understands the difference between donating whole blood and platelets. That’s why Wright State University communications student Jasmine Seard chose apheresis as the subject of a school video project. All she needed was a donor to follow through the process. But she quickly learned there is much more to this gift of life than meets the eye when that donor turned out to be Judy LaMusga.
“At UD (University of Dayton) law school they called me ‘Mom,’” says Judy. “But NEVER Grandma!” At a time in life when some might choose retirement, Judy got a law degree and started her own practice. She never stops re-inventing herself, she won’t give in to what others might think of a Mom (never a Grandma!) hanging with college kids, and she absolutely won’t miss her regular apheresis appointment.
Jasmine’s first visit to Community Blood Center (CBC) and first view of an apheresis donation would be Judy’s milestone 375th time in the donor bed. There is no mistaking the value of platelets. These sticky cells are the miracle blood component that keeps us from bleeding to death and saves lives when transfused to children, cancer patients and trauma victims. That’s why Judy donates so often, and that’s why she was more than willing to be Jasmine’s guide and mentor through her “Platelets 101.”
The education began with sign-in, as Judy jumped into the routine of spelling her name and rattling off her blood donor ID number. She marched through screening, explaining every step. “There are some stupid FDA rules, but some very good FDA rules,” she said, arguing both sides of the case. “I don’t mind anymore because there is someone out there sick and I want to do everything necessary to make sure they get these platelets.”
When Judy hits the Donor Room it’s like a judge taking the bench. Her routine is rigid, familiar and relentless. First, the bathroom break (she remembers the early days of apheresis when the process took much longer with no relief for a full bladder); next to the bed goes her water bottle; a heated blanket covers the bed; she pulls on her scarlet Ohio State University socks (she is a devoted Buckeye fan); then settles in with two blankets – including a cover for her donor arm.
Everything up to this point has been prelude to the actual donation, and the inevitable needle. “I’m going to look away,” she tells Jasmine without a hint of shame. “I never watch them stick me. I can’t stand it. I know that’s silly, but I can’t watch. I can watch the blood flow, but I can’t watch the stick.”
Even justice is blind, but after the stick Judy’s are open wide. She understands every step and anticipates every move by CBC collections staff member Tammy Cordell. “She’s going to take this bag and seal it off and fill a whole bunch of tubes because there’s a whole bunch of testing they do,” she explains.
The amount of platelets to be drawn and the length of the donation are all carefully calibrated by the sophisticated apheresis machine. Judy knows here donations will take approximately 80 minutes.
She points to a color bar moving across the face of a small screen. “When it’s on the left – on the draw – it’s pulling my blood,” she says. “I have to make sure it stays in the green. I’ve got to make sure I’m pulling right.” She knows that if the donation is taking too long it must be stopped, and the opportunity to help someone could be wasted. “I have to make sure I squeeze (the green, foam gripper in her hand) and keep my arm straight. We all do it differently, whatever makes it draw correctly.”
“When the bar goes over to the right, that’s the return, and it’s cold,” she says with a familiar dread. “They’ve taken a certain amount of blood and returned everything else, – everything BUT – platelets. Hear it click? We’re back on the draw. This will go on until they’ve got enough platelets, eight or nine times.”
With the return comes the chill, because the blood is much cooler now than when it first left her body. She mitigates that discomfort with her layers of bright red blankets, but the return also brings the reminder that sodium citrate, an anticoagulant, has been added to her blood.
“They’ve got to keep you from coagulating, but that anticoagulant is the bane of my experience!” he says. “Especially for women. That’s why I take calcium (she munched on Tums before the donation began). I get crampy, tingling, and that iron taste in my mouth.”
Judy’s water bottle is routine because her reaction is routine. Otherwise, fluids are not allowed in the donor area. “If the FDA came in it would show in my chart that I had a reaction, which I always do, so it’s OK to take the water.”
Despite the Tums and water, Judy still bristles over the sodium citrate. “I call it crap!” she says defiantly. “I will have that taste in my mouth for two or three hours. My nose will tingle for a while. It affects women more than men.”
There are fewer women apheresis donors these days, because of the restriction on women who have previously been pregnant from donating platelets and plasma. The reason is a potentially deadly protein associated with Transfusion Related Acute Lung Injury, or TRALI. The restriction came after Judy was established as a donor, so as he says, “I’m grandfathered in… or grandmothered in.” But Jasmine is quick to correct her mentor. “Don’t you mean ‘mothered’ in?” she says. “Yes, thank you!” beams Judy to her star student.
After the educating, the complaining, and the laughs, Judy is ready for her closing arguments. “People say, ‘Why do you donate?’” she says. “Because that’s the one thing they can’t manufacture. The only way you can replace blood is with someone else’s blood. So that’s one reason I give. I give because I can.”
This tough lady became a lawyer after retiring from 35 years of public service, including management roles with the Montgomery County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. She softens when she remembers her early apheresis donations, upstairs at CBC using the old equipment, where she once noticed a note attached to her machine.
“I asked, “What’s that?’” she said. “They said, ‘That’s the person that’s going to get your platelets.’ That hit me so hard. It was a woman at Wright-Patt that was going to use them. That was an awesome experience.”
And there is her most precious memory from a Christmas years ago. “I remember there was a young boy, we never knew his age,” she said. “His family wanted him to make it through Christmas. There were four or five of us in a group donating for him. He needed white blood cells. His family wanted him to make it through one more Christmas and he did, and he made it through February.”
“The needle hurts, yes I get crampy. But compare that to a little boy in a hospital trying to make it through Christmas. The needle hurts? Please.”
With that, Judy rests her case. It also means class is almost over for Jasmine, the young communications student. Judy finishes her 375th donation then sits down with Jasmine in the Donor Café. They laugh about the blotch on her blouse where she spilled her coffee and discuss what makes the best cookie. Just a couple of college kids relaxing after an important assignment, and enjoying a true moment of accomplishment.