Ongoing blood shortage takes toll on most at-risk patients

Blood shortage may delay college student’s treatments as she waits for transplant

Since the age of 6, Hagan Hill has needed blood donations to manage a rare liver disease. Across the nation, the pandemic has made it more difficult for patients like her to get the blood they desperately need.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center lost 1,000 blood drives, the equivalent of 7,600 blood donations, this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This fall, the community blood center continues to struggle to get the 500 donations it needs every day to meet the needs of patients in hospitals across the region.

That includes patients like 20-year-old Hagan, whose family hopes there will be enough blood when she is finally scheduled for a second liver transplant. Because the procedure involves transplanting a partial liver from a living donor, it was considered elective surgery and was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Jeanie Hill, Hagan’s mother, said that when the lifesaving procedure can finally be scheduled, it will not take place unless adequate amounts of blood are available.

“Think of it – it could be your loved one who may need a lifesaving liver, heart or kidney transplant – and you would want them to live,” she said. “So we are pleading with the community to please step forward, because you may need it yourself someday.”

Hagan has required blood transfusions since her diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis at the age of 6. She received a liver transplant at 14, after an episode of massive gastrointestinal bleeding, but her condition now requires another transplant.

She also suffers from severe anemia. The shortage of blood over the summer forced her to take an iron treatment instead of a blood transfusion, her mother said.

“We would have preferred Hagan to have received a blood transfusion vs. iron,” Jeanie said. “Blood obviously would work faster to raise her iron level, therefore she would receive the benefits quickly.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected blood donations not only in South Texas but across the nation, said Elizabeth Waltman, Chief Operating Officer of the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, a subsidiary of San Antonio-based BioBridge Global.

“For most blood centers, blood drives produce about 70% of the donations in a typical year, and most of those drives were cancelled over the summer because of the pandemic,” she said. “Usually when there are shortages, community blood centers work together to fill the need, but in this case, the shortage is nation-wide and no one has blood to send.” 

Blood collections typically increase during the fall, because school-related drives normally provide up to a quarter of all donations. But because of the pandemic, universities and high schools are hosting very few blood drives, so thousands of additional blood donations are being lost, creating uncertainty for patients needing blood.

The center is asking the community to step up and donate blood during a time of critical need. It is also asking businesses and organizations to work with it to find new ways to host blood drives and encourage donation this fall, even if employees and students are still at home.

“For every patient who needs blood, it’s a 9-1-1 situation,” Waltman said. “We have had a lot of community support already, but the community needs more drives for the people who need blood in South Texas.”

In South Texas, donors wanting to give blood and organizations to sponsor a drive can contact the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center at 210-731-5590 or visit SouthTexasBlood.org/Give-Now. Donors also can give at University Hospital by calling 210-358-2812 or visiting DonateBloodToday.com. To sign up as an organ donor, visit DonateLifeTexas.org.

All donations are by appointment only to help maintain proper social distancing.

How can I find out my blood type?

Simple tests can reveal if you’re O-positive, AB-negative or something in between

If you’re curious about your blood type, there are several ways to discover it.

The easiest way is to donate blood with the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center. We’ll run tests to determine your type and put it on your donor profile.

Science of blood typing

The most common blood typing is the ABO and the Rh systems. They are determined by:

  • The presence or absence of type A or B antigens on your red blood cells. If you have type A antigens on your red cells, you have type A blood. Same goes for type B. If you have neither A nor B antigens on your red cells, you are type O. If you have both, you’re type AB.
  • The presence or absence of what is known as the Rh factor. If you have it, you are Rh positive. No Rh factor? Rh negative.
  • Your blood type is determined by your genetics – you get it from your parents. While the ABO system is most commonly used, there are hundreds of other types, some of them extremely rare.

The system for determining blood types has been around since 1900.

Figuring out your type

We run simple tests on your blood donation to determine its type:

  • A sample of your blood is mixed with antibodies that react to type A, and another is mixed with antibodies that react to type B.
  • We look at the samples after they spin around a centrifuge.
  • How the samples react to the antibodies – or if they react – determines your ABO type.
  • Another small sample is mixed with an anti-Rh serum, and if the cells clump together, you are Rh positive.

Drastic decline in marrow donor registrations leave blood cancer patients searching for matches

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and many pediatric patients fighting blood cancers are facing a new uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic — fewer people are signing up to be lifesaving marrow or stem cell donors.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center (STBTC) is encouraging individuals age 18 to 44 and in general good health to sign up for the national marrow registry, Be The Match, to support children fighting cancer and searching for their matching donor.

“Because of the pandemic, registrations to the Be The Match Registry have drastically decreased,” said Samuel Hillhouse, Be The Match program administrator at STBTC. “We have had 69 registrations in September this year, compared to 639 in the same month last year. This leaves many patients who have no matches on the registry with little hope of receiving a transplant.”

For patients like Kane Goodwin, a marrow transplant is the difference between life and death.

Kane was only 4 years old when his parents took him to the emergency room for unusual bruises in 2017. He had dangerously low platelet levels and required blood and platelet transfusions immediately.

Their emergency room visit turned into a 93-day hospital stay as Kane fought aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder.

Like patients fighting blood cancers or blood diseases, Kane’s best hope for a cure was a matching marrow donor—someone who has the same genetic tissue typing of the immune system.

While many patients struggle to find the match they need, Kane thankfully found his donor quickly on the Be The Match Registry.

In the weeks leading up to his lifesaving transplant, Kane also required blood every few days. Patients who receive a marrow transplant can use up to 140 units of blood and platelets.

“When he needed it, it was life or death,” his mother Kate said. “I think about it all the time. What if he needed blood and they didn’t have it? We were really lucky that blood was there in that situation.”

Fortunately for Kane’s family, there was blood available when he needed it, thanks to donors with the STBTC, a subsidiary of BioBridge Global.

However, the loss of blood drives during the pandemic, which in a typical year provide up to 70% of all donations, means less blood is available for cancer patients like Kane.

“Blood transfusions are a critical part of fighting cancer, and it’s absolutely necessary to have blood readily available for patients like Kane,” said Dr. Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, Associated Medical Director with STBTC.

Thanks to blood donors and his marrow donor, Kane survived aplastic anemia and is now a healthy 6-year-old. His family continues to raise awareness for the thousands of children who still need a marrow or stem cell transplant to fight their blood cancer or blood disease.

To become a potential marrow donor, join the registry by texting KANE to 61474. The community can also support cancer patients by donating blood at an STBTC donor room. Donations are by appointment only and can be scheduled at SouthTexasBlood.org/Give.

Blood supply drops to half of what is needed as blood drives at schools and colleges are canceled

The blood supply in South Texas has reached critically low levels, declining to around half of what is needed to adequately serve patients throughout the region.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, a subsidiary of San Antonio-based non-profit BioBridge Global, urgently needs 500 donations per day through Monday to re-build the supply.

The shortfall comes at a time when collections normally are rising, the start of the new school year. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, universities are not hosting blood drives and there is only one high school drive scheduled during September.

There are only 60 blood drives scheduled this month, compared to 200 in September of last year, as businesses and other organizations also have canceled drives because of the pandemic.

In a typical year, school-related drives provide up to a quarter of all donations at the community blood center.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is asking the community to make an appointment to give at one of its seven donor rooms across South Texas, or a nearby blood drive. Potential donors can find out more and make an appointment at SouthTexasBlood.org.

To help with the ongoing need, Santikos Entertainment is partnering with the center for an emergency blood drive Friday at the Casa Blanca Movie Theater, 11210 Alamo Ranch Parkway from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. As a thank-you, all donors at the theater will receive a movie ticket and a voucher for a free Whataburger burger. Donors will need to make an appointment online here or by calling 210-731-5590.

Blood donations are needed for a range of treatments, from cancer to trauma to childbirth, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The community blood bank has put numerous protocols in place to keep donors safe, from mandatory masks to social distancing. All blood donations also are tested for COVID-19 antibodies.

FDA changes status of convalescent plasma program

New Emergency Use Authorization could make COVID-19 therapy more readily available to coronavirus patients

The Food and Drug Administration has changed the status of COVID-19 convalescent plasma therapy from a clinical trial to an Emergency Use Authorization.

The change should provide faster and easier access to the therapy by waiving some regulatory requirements before hospitalized patients with COVID-19 can receive transfusions of convalescent plasma.

Convalescent plasma is donated by those who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection and still have antibodies to COVID-19 in their blood. It is transfused to current patients, possibly providing passive immunity via anti-COVID antibodies.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is the only organization in San Antonio collecting convalescent plasma donations and distributing them to local and area hospitals. The community blood center began collections as part of a clinical trial being conducted by the Mayo Clinic.

The FDA noted in its announcement on Sunday that convalescent plasma “may be effective in treating COVID-19 and that the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product.”

Carabin Shaw PC and Wyatt Law Firm PLLC are sponsoring a program to give convalescent plasma donors with STBTC a $50 Visa gift card for donating. The cards are being supplied by the firms and are not funded by the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, a subsidiary of BioBridge Global. The cards will be distributed while supplies last.

Anyone interested in donating convalescent plasma can contact the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center at COVID19@SouthTexasBlood.org or visit SouthTexasBlood.org.

STBTC is taking donations by appointment only at the Donor Pavilion in San Antonio and its donor room in Victoria.

Plasma donors also must meet all other requirements to give blood.

The Emergency Use Authorization allows the distribution of convalescent plasma for its use by health care providers to treat suspected or laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patients.

The Mayo Clinic recently reported data from 35,000 patients treated with convalescent plasma in its clinical trial. The report said there were fewer deaths among people given plasma within three days of diagnosis as well as those given plasma with the highest levels of antibodies.

The FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization authorizes the use of COVID-19 convalescent plasma, but its use has not been fully approved or licensed by the FDA.

The Emergency Use Authorization allows its use “only for the duration of the declaration that circumstances exist justifying the authorization of the emergency use of drugs and biological products during the COVID-19 pandemic,” under federal law, the FDA stated, “unless the authorization is terminated or revoked sooner.”

‘Old’ science leads in fight against COVID-19

Convalescent plasma, first discovered in the 19th century, authorized for use in fight against coronavirus

A doctor’s reaction to a potential epidemic almost 90 years ago forms the basis for one of the few therapies for patients with COVID-19 today. That therapy was in the news recently, as the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for it on Sunday, Aug. 23, with the goal of making it more widely available.

Back in 1934, Dr. J. Roswell Gallagher, staff physician at a boys’ school near Philadelphia, knew he had to act fast when one boy came down with the measles, then gave it to two others in the school’s infirmary.

So he looked back to science from the turn of the 20th century. Research showed that “antiserum” – plasma, the liquid part in the bloodstream – could be used to prevent or treat diseases.

Gallagher collected and purified plasma from the first boy to recover from the measles and gave it to 62 other students.

Three developed mild symptoms. No one else got sick.

‘Antiserum’ therapy makes a comeback

As patients began suffering from COVID-19 earlier this year, Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, remembered the lessons Gallagher had practiced decades ago.

Casadevall proposed bringing back “antiserum” – now known as convalescent plasma – as a treatment in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal in late February.

As reported on the Johns Hopkins University site The Hub, Casadevall’s idea spread quickly.

Teams were assembled, protocols were defined and groundwork was laid for a clinical trial using convalescent plasma to fight COVID-19, including the clinical trial being run by the Mayo Clinic, of which the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is a part.

Warp speed deployment, results

A clinical trial at Methodist Hospital in Houston was established for the use of convalescent plasma on March 24. Less than a week later, the first patients received it.

The first dose was collected at the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center in early April and quickly transfused to a seriously ill patient— who has since recovered and now is eligible to donate himself.

Nationally, tens of thousands of patients have received convalescent plasma. A preliminary look at patient data by the Mayo Clinic showed a 50 percent decrease in mortality rates in patients receiving the transfusions, especially if they receive plasma soon after a positive test.

Athletic blood donors report fewer negative experiences

46-month research demonstrates safety of FDA guidance for low pulse rate population

Blood donors with low pulse rates experience fewer negative reactions than the general blood donor population, according to a review conducted at the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center.

Negative reactions – including things like bruising, dizziness or soreness – were reported in just 0.53% of donors who had a pulse rate of 50 beats per minute or less, compared to 3.36% of all donors during the same period.

Following the eligibility change, STBTC wanted to make sure blood donation was safe for donors with lower pulse rates.

Procedure

To follow the FDA guidance, the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center established this procedure:

  • When a donor was recorded with a pulse rate of 50 or lower, the phlebotomist contacted a nurse.
  • The nurse would evaluate the donor’s athletic activity and build, and make sure the donor had no cardiac issues.
  • The nurse would contact a physician, who would make the final determination about the donor’s suitability.

Just 13 reactions in low pulse rate donors were reported. None of the reactions were classified as severe.

“At STBTC, we want to ensure the safety of our donors,” said Dr. Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, Associate Medical Director. “Donors with low pulse rates can donate safely.”

The research has been accepted for a poster presentation at the virtual AABB Annual Meeting.

Schedule a donation to give blood today by calling 210-731-5590 or visiting SouthTexasBlood.org/Give-Now.

About the artist: F.L. ‘Doc’ Spellmon

We’re launching a monthly series about the artists who contributed to the BioBridge Art Collection. This month’s featured artist is F.L. “Doc” Spellmon. Click on the video to see the entire BBG art collection.

A good artist can use his hands to create a painting. An extraordinary artist can transform that painting to an enchanting story that cannot be expressed by words.

Fronzell Lincoln “Doc” Spellmon was extraordinary, an artist with the ability to create remarkable stories and messages through the stroke of his paintbrush.

He discovered his love for art at a young age after seeing pictures from the Bible and other religious books owned by his father, who was a minister. Those fables and biblical stories had a great impact on his artwork later, as he is best known for his nativity scenes and folk art.

Before Spellmon was able to bring his passion to his art, he went through many physical and spiritual journeys growing up, including working as a middle school teacher and fighting for his country in the U.S Navy. He eventually retired to focus on art scenes in San Antonio and Austin, where he founded multiple art programs, including the Black Art Studio Art Gallery in San Antonio and the San Antonio Ethnic Society to aid young African Americans in the journey of fine art.

Spellmon created a voice in the visual arts for the African American community through his expressive paintings depicting the culture and heritage of Black Americans that he believed needed to be portrayed in American culture. His artwork included twists from African art that ranged from masks and tribal figures to revolutionary black figures in American history like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He took the opportunity to paint settings from his rural childhood, displaying everyday activities that he understood many experienced – such as a family coming back to church – and portraying them in a new light. Spellmon had a desire for the audience to see the drastic changes in the new rural life compared to 100 years ago. He wanted to emphasize how African Americans had the freedom to work for themselves and make a living instead of being bound to slavery. His artwork expressed the belief and hope for a better future where men of all colors could live in peace and equality.

Spellmon used his platform to make many contributions to the San Antonio community, participating in charities and donating his works toward beneficial causes such as the Bexar County Hospital District in the Read Stremmel Gallery. His piece “Blacks in Space” is part of the BioBridge Global Art Collection and hangs between the elevator doors on the first floor of the Headquarters Building.

He always stayed true to his beliefs even as he gained popularity, not allowing the fame to change his motives, and he became an inspiration for many future artists in San Antonio.

–By Ayishah Habib, student intern, Johnson High School

Independent U.S. blood centers lead way in convalescent plasma donations

Blood centers across the United States, including the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, have committed to doubling the number of convalescent plasma doses given to COVID-19 patients next month.

The announcement came during a convalescent plasma roundtable hosted by the White House. The event was described as a “national call to action” to encourage donation by Americans who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies that can help current patients fight the virus.

Members of America’s Blood Centers, including the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, collect more than 60% of the nation’s blood donations. They have provided 100,000 of the 124,000 doses of convalescent plasma transfused since the program began this spring.

“We’re not slowing down in any kind of way – indeed, we’re mobilizing to do even more,” said Kate Fry, Chief Executive Officer of America’s Blood Centers.

“We are projecting we will double our current number of doses by the end of August.”

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, a subsidiary of San Antonio nonprofit BioBridge Global, has provided more than 4,400 of those doses and has a goal of collecting from 75 donors a day by the end of August.

That would translate to about 260 doses a day, since an average donor can provide approximately three to five doses of plasma per donation.

The roundtable, which was moderated by President Donald Trump, included leaders from industry and the government working to boost convalescent plasma donations. A recording of the session is available at https://youtu.be/SxG-X15xLGk.

“We’re here to encourage more and more people to see (plasma donation) as something important and practical they can do during this global pandemic,” said Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health.

Convalescent plasma has been called a bridge therapy – one that appears to be helping multiple patients – until an effective vaccine is approved.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is the only organization in this area collecting convalescent plasma that can be transfused directly to patients with COVID-19.

Potential donors can find out more by visiting SouthTexasBlood.org or emailing COVID19@SouthTexasBlood.org. All donors must contact the center and be screened for COVID-19 antibody levels and symptoms before donating.

STBTC is taking donations by appointment only at the Donor Pavilion in San Antonio and its donor room in Victoria.

“With the widespread usage of convalescent plasma, it is a safe therapy for those with COVID-19 and it shows promise in helping patients,” said Dr. Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, Associate Medical Director at the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center. “It is essentially a bridge between getting a vaccine or some other therapy.”

The community blood center and local hospitals are part of a study led by the Mayo Clinic into the effectiveness of the therapy. Antibodies to COVID-19 in the plasma may provide passive immunity to certain patients with severe forms of the illness.

The concept of using plasma from recovered patients is not new. The first Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded in 1901 to a German physician for his work in developing what was known then as “antiserum.” In 1934, a physician at a boys school outside Pennsylvania used plasma from a recovered patient to keep all the students from coming down with the measles.

Plasma from recovered patients has been used more recently to treat patients with Ebola and SARS.

Doctor treating COVID-19 patients encourages convalescent plasma donors

Dr. Jairo Melo, Medical Director for Pulmonary and Critical Care with Methodist Hospital, treats dozens of patients with COVID-19 every day.

Based on early research, he and his team have been prescribing the antiviral drug Remdisivir and a steroid called dexamethasone to patients, but supplies of the drugs can be tight. So is the supply of another treatment Dr. Melo says he would like to use with every COVID-19 admitted to the hospital – convalescent plasma.

And that’s a resource that doesn’t require a pharmaceutical facility. All it takes is someone who has been sick with COVID-19 to give plasma at the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center.

‘Go and donate plasma’

“If you have had COVID-19 and recovered, or if you know of anyone who has recovered, they should go and donate plasma,” Dr. Melo says. “Your blood has antibodies that may help save the life of someone else, maybe somebody you love.”

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is the only organization in San Antonio collecting convalescent plasma that can be transfused directly to patients currently fighting COVID-19. Anyone who has recovered can visit SouthTexasBlood.org/COVID19 or send an email to COVID19@SouthTexasBlood.org to learn more and set an appointment for screening.

‘Saves lives and provides hope’

San Antonian Paul Basaldua has been a regular plasma donor since recovering from COVID-19 this spring.

“It’s vital that more people who’ve recovered make plasma donations, and our community and business leaders need to amplify that message,” he said in a commentary published at the Rivard Report. “Simply put, plasma saves lives and provides hope.”

Plasma donors must meet the same requirements as all blood donors, including making an appointment, and the process takes just slightly longer than a regular whole blood donation, says Dr. Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, Associate Medical Director, South Texas Blood & Tissue Center. And there’s a bonus – qualified plasma donors can give twice a week, and each donation helps three or more patients.

More donors needed

Dr. Melo says the need for donors is critical.

“We have more patients now than we can treat with plasma,” he says.

He would like to treat any COVID-19 patient he sees with convalescent plasma, not just the severely ill ones, but right now there isn’t enough of it available.

“If they’re sick enough to be in the hospital, we want to give it to them,” Dr. Melo says.

Convalescent plasma has been used for more than 100 years, and there is abundant literature to support it as a therapy – especially when there are no other treatments available, he said.

“We think it works – we have seen it in our patients. They recover faster and they overall do better,” Dr. Melo says.