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After 18 years of monthly blood transfusions, Elaine Sonntag-Johnson is happy to report that she doesn't need them anymore. When she was first diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare disorder that causes the body to destroy its own blood cells, the only available treatment was transfusion of donated blood.
At the time, people diagnosed with PNH were expected to live only three to five years. With the help of hundreds of blood donors and nearly 1,000 units of blood components, Elaine beat the odds and lived long enough to benefit from a new treatment for the disorder.
"My husband always thought a treatment would be found," says Elaine. He was right. In 2007, the FDA approved a new drug, which prevents the breakdown of red blood cells. It works so well that Elaine rarely needs blood transfusions anymore.
Now 52, Elaine works part-time as a social worker and enjoys every minute with her two kids. Doctors say she can expect to live a normal lifespan. Understandably, Elaine gets teary-eyed talking about the blood donors who helped her survive. "The gratitude can't be expressed—they kept me alive! They are quiet heroes, helping people they don't even know out of the goodness of their hearts. We have a blood center we can rely on every day, if people get sick or get into accidents. It's just there."
After his liver failed, it took 23 units of blood and the support of the Blood Center's Specialty Diagnostics Laboratories to sustain Gary Arvan through his liver transplant surgery. Primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts, had destroyed Gary's liver and threatened his life. A vibrant man with a wife and two sons, Gary was determined to raise his boys to manhood.
He made good on his promise. Not only did he achieve that goal, he rode the Seattle to Portland bicycle ride exactly one year after his transplant operation, played first base on his softball team, continued working full-time as a Boeing software developer, and became a proud advocate for the Blood Center.
Today, side effects from medication that prevents Gary's body from rejecting his new liver make additional blood transfusions necessary. Whenever he needs blood, the Blood Center is there, again. The boys—one now in college, one in high school—have grown up with their dad beside them to nurture and guide their journey. To the unknown people who donated the blood that helped save his life, Gary says, "I have been given a great gift, a gift of life, a gift of time, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart."
After surviving heart failure, an implanted heart pump and two heart transplants, Pat Kelly had run out of options. His immune system was rejecting his second transplanted heart—just as it had the first—and Pat was not considered a candidate for a third transplant. The antibodies his body created were in his bloodstream, attacking and threatening to destroy his replacement heart.
To help protect his new heart and extend his life, Pat receives plasmapheresis treatments. Blood taken from Pat is processed through a centrifuge to remove the plasma, which contains the antibodies. New plasma from blood donors is mixed in with Pat's red blood cells, and the mixture is then returned to Pat's body.
The plasmapheresis treatments work well, and Pat has resumed coaching the youth baseball teams he loves. With Monica, his wife of 21 years, and their two sons, Pat embraces every single day. "We live for the moment, day to day, just enjoying the small pleasures in life," he says.
Throughout his childhood with hemophilia, Brian suffered injuries that were inappropriately treated by doctors who did not fully understand his disorder. Brian had a lucky encounter at age 17, when he met a Bloodworks Northwest nurse at Seattle Children's Hospital. She referred him to the Blood Center's Hemophilia Treatment Center (HTC).
HTC staff prescribed a regular, prophylactic dose of Factor IX, the blood clotting protein that Brian's body lacks. Though he found it difficult at first to learn to inject himself with the medication, once he mastered it, Brian's life improved dramatically, with no more severe bleeding episodes. He finished college, began working in the software industry, and married Thea, a Blood Center volunteer.
Now 28, Brian visits the HTC regularly for check-ups. He speaks warmly of the caring, dedicated staff. Recently, his arm was in a cast, and he was unable to inject his own medication. HTC physician Dr. Neil Josephson met him on a Saturday to inject him. "I feel that my current quality of life and well-being is greatly attributable to the care and guidance provided by the medical and support staff of the Blood Center," says Brian. "I will continue to volunteer my time to the community they have helped me become a part of."
Lisa was a new employee at Bloodworks Northwest when she first heard about the opportunity for umbilical cord blood donation. Pregnant at the time with her first child, Lisa quickly decided to participate. "The cord is something that usually gets discarded," she says. "Why not save a life with it?"
She contacted the Cord Blood Program and filled out a few simple forms. In the delivery room, hospital staff collected the stem-cell-rich blood from her umbilical cord while Lisa cuddled her newborn son, James.
Nine years later, the Cord Blood Program called Lisa with amazing news. "They had a match for our cord blood—a four-year-old boy with leukemia," Lisa says, "It's a good thing I was in my office when they called, because I teared up when I heard!" At home, Lisa sat down with her son James and shared the news that the special blood from his birth was going to help save a little boy. "He had seen his grandparents go through cancer, so he knew just how serious the situation was. James cried, too."
"As a mother, there is no greater hope than having and raising a healthy child," says Lisa. "It was an honor to donate cord blood when my son was born, and to pass that hope on to another family."
When Janice's daughter, Angela, obtained her driver's license, she insisted that her mom sign the parental consent form allowing her to become an organ donor. Angela believed strongly that it was the right thing to do, and Janice approved of her decision. Tragically, Angela died in an accident in 2002, when she was only 17 years old. In grief and shock, Janice respected Angela's wishes by donating her tissues, including bones, skin, corneas, and veins.
Family members gathered at the hospital as the transplant team stood by. "One thing I thought was really touching," says Janice, "was the team waited, and wouldn't do anything, until we'd said our goodbyes."
Janice learned that Angela's remarkable gift has helped 40 different people, ages 16 to 97. Janice sometimes reads through the list and feels inspired. "Angela had a purpose," she says. "She touched the lives of each of those people, and they may accomplish things they otherwise would not have been able to do."