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Giving Back One Unit at a Time

Marianne Moyer got a standing ovation recently when she announced to a roomful of rare disease patients at a medical conference that her husband donates plasma every two weeks. Her husband, John, started donating blood and plasma more than 20 years ago, even before Marianne started relying on intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy—a plasma-derived product—to treat myositis. Since then he estimates he has given about 18 gallons of blood and 63 gallons of plasma.

For those like Marianne who depend on immune globulin to help control inflammation in autoimmune and immune deficiency diseases, having enough plasma available to companies that make plasma products is a constant concern. Human plasma is not a drug that can be artificially synthesized. It requires people to donate on a regular basis so therapies such as immunoglobulins, coagulation factors, alpha-1 proteinase inhibitor, and albumin can be produced.

This is an important concern right now because fewer people are donating plasma because of coronavirus restrictions. Many citizens are staying home, which means many are not donating. Donation centers are also taking steps to create social distance within the facility, so they are asking donors to schedule appointments rather than drop in, and they are seating donors farther away from each other. Fewer donations now could mean a shortage of plasma-derived therapies in six to nine months.

Most people are aware of how important donating blood can be, especially when disaster strikes. People also assume that when they give their blood, whatever other blood products are needed can be derived from that donation. The truth is a bit more complicated, though.

Plasma is the golden yellow liquid part of human blood in which red blood cells and proteins are carried throughout the body. Donors can offer their whole blood—red cells and all—on a one-time basis or, like John has done, they can donate every 56 days.

Plasma donors, however, can give more often, because those all-important oxygen-carrying red blood cells are returned to their bloodstream during the donation process. And because plasma is manufactured into lifesaving therapies for many diseases, plasma donors are encouraged to give regularly—as often as twice a week, at a certified plasma donation center.

For the Moyers, volunteering in the community is a way of life. They have been running one of the most successful myositis support groups in southwest Florida for 13 years. Marianne has served on the board of the local Red Cross, and John has been treasurer of their homeowners association and property manager at their church. And they both volunteer with programs at the local public schools. For John, donating plasma is just another way to give back.

“September 11 happened shortly after we moved here to Florida,” John says. “I would donate blood when we lived in Washington, D.C. So when they were calling for blood [after the 9/11 attacks], we both rushed down to the hospital to donate.”

Marianne was heartbroken to find out that, because of her myositis, she was ineligible to donate. But John has been giving about every two weeks ever since. When Marianne was prescribed IVIG in 2003, his donations became even more personal.

Marianne has a form of myositis called necrotizing myopathy, an autoimmune disease of the muscles that makes it difficult for her to do things like climb stairs and lift even small objects. Myositis has also brought interstitial lung disease, which causes scarring in the lungs making it difficult for Marianne to breathe at times. Her IVIG infusions—which she receives in the comfort of her home—control these symptoms well, allowing her to live a fairly normal life.

“All the years when we were working, we didn’t have much time to participate in community affairs or charities,” John says. “Life has been good to us, and now that we are retired, I can afford to spend a couple hours at the donor center. It just makes me feel good to know that I’m helping, not just one person, but many people.”

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