Survivor donates blood to help other patients
December 15, 2022
How MD Anderson has built its blood supply for cancer patients
BY KirstiAnn Clifford
Last updated Feb. 9, 2023
Allie Moreno has a simple yet powerful message for people who donate blood at MD Anderson: “Thank you. Your selfless act saves lives and was essential to my recovery.”
She received multiple blood transfusions throughout her non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatment at MD Anderson, as the chemotherapy caused anemia and low blood cell counts.
“I never knew the importance of blood until I received it,” Allie says. “It was impressive to see how my care team and the MD Anderson Blood Bank came together to make sure blood was available right when I needed it, even transporting it to MD Anderson in Sugar Land at a moment’s notice.”
Allie is one of the thousands of MD Anderson patients who need blood transfusions as part of their treatment each year. Our patients require approximately 200 units of red blood cells and 600 units of platelets every day, making MD Anderson the largest transfusing hospital in the nation.
“Many patients with cancers like leukemia and lymphoma need to receive blood transfusions while they undergo treatment,” says Hagop Kantarjian, M.D., chair of Leukemia. “Blood donors are critical to helping our patients recover and reach remission.”
Becoming self-sufficient takes a team effort
While our patients’ need for blood remains constant, maintaining an adequate blood supply can be a challenge. In 2020, pandemic challenges and supply chain disruptions led to the nation’s largest blood shortage in more than a decade, impacting hospitals across the country.
“The pandemic has taught us that we need to reduce dependency on purchasing blood because that puts us at the mercy of others determining how much we can get,” explains Habib Tannir, vice president, Diagnostic Operations. “The only way to ensure a blood donation goes to our patients is to donate at MD Anderson Blood Bank or our blood drives.”
That’s why the blood donor operations team now partners with teams across MD Anderson to recruit new donors, encourage repeat donors and implement creative solutions to fill this critical need for patients.
Tannir says the efforts are paying off and helping the institution become more self-sufficient. He points to data showing in-house blood collections now provide 50% of the total red blood cells transfused to our patients, compared to 30% before the pandemic. In Fiscal Year 2022, the number of new donors increased by 30% over the previous year.
“Our donors have really stepped up to help minimize any impact on our patients,” says Tannir. “Our goal is to always serve each patient in need. It’s a 24/7 effort.”
Creative approaches grow the blood donor pool
The new and unprecedented challenges with blood donation have caused MD Anderson to rethink how to meet the needs of patients while keeping safety top of mind.
“We’ve found success with several new approaches to help us keep up with demand, including promoting double red cell donations, which allows donors to give two doses of red blood cells in one sitting,” says Ricardo Civallero, a program manager with Donor Operations.
Making donating opportunities as convenient as possible has been another focus. With more people working remotely, additional blood drives have been offered during morning, afternoon and evening hours at MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus, our Houston-area locations, and locations throughout the community.
MD Anderson has focused on boosting community donations through outreach. From Houston Dynamo FC and area businesses to schools and churches, local organizations are hosting blood drives to help MD Anderson patients or offering gifts or coupons as incentives for blood donors.
MD Anderson also has revised eligibility criteria to expand its donor pool. The Blood Bank now accepts previously deferred donors with a history of solid tumor or skin cancer diagnosis, as long as the treatment has been completed and the donor has been in remission or free of disease for more than two years.
For squamous cell skin cancer survivor Cliff Carson, donating is a “must-do activity” that allows him to give back, and he’s excited to contribute to the donor pool once again. As an MD Anderson employee, he was a faithful donor until 2018, when he found a lump on the side of his throat and was diagnosed with skin cancer. Now in remission, Cliff carries on his tradition of donating whole blood every 56 days.
“I help save three lives each time I donate, so that’s always a great feeling,” he says. “I find nothing more valuable than donating blood because it cannot be created artificially and there are no substitutes — donors are the only source.”
Employees lead the way by donating blood and platelets
When it comes to championing blood donation for our patients, MD Anderson employees at all levels have been leading by example.
“We have 23,000 employees devoted to our mission and the work we do, so they are a natural group of donors and ambassadors for blood donation at MD Anderson,” says Civallero. “Our employees, especially those who donate often, are critical to keeping our blood supply stable and to encouraging others in our community to roll up their sleeves, too.”
In all, more than 3,300 employees, or 16% of MD Anderson’s workforce, donated blood in FY22 — compared to the national average of 3%. In December 2021, MD Anderson began offering an extra day of vacation time for employees who donate at least four times a year. Since then, more than 385 employees have received this special Donor Appreciation Leave – and that number continues to grow.
For donors, motivations range from the practical to the personal, but all share a passion for helping others.
President Peter WT Pisters, M.D., maintains a regular donation schedule, describing his experience on social media and including a call to action to support our patients.
Paul Mansfield, M.D., professor in Surgical Oncology, also donates consistently.
“I see the direct benefit of blood for patients who require transfusions during surgery,” he says. “While it’s important to weigh the risks and benefits of transfusion, there are occasional cases where we need a lot of blood and it makes the difference between a positive and a negative outcome.”
Colleen Villamin, transfusion medicine nurse coordinator, feels compelled to donate because she is a universal blood donor. That means her Type O negative blood can be used in transfusions for any blood type.
Many others, like Ramin Monjazeb, senior IT support technician, find donating blood and platelets is an easy way to honor loved ones who have been impacted by cancer.
“I’ve lost family and friends to cancer and know what families go through, so this is one thing I can do to directly help patients,” he says.
Lifesaving and lifegiving
Not a day goes by that Allie Moreno doesn’t think about everything she went through and how far she’s come. Now five years out from treatment, she’s a mom of two children. She feels stronger than ever and appreciates everyone who helped her during her time at MD Anderson.
“The best part now is that I share the story with a smile and am in remission so I can be there for my family,” she says.
Schedule an appointment to donate at MD Anderson Blood Bank.
I never knew the importance of blood until I received it.