I’ve become something of a connoisseur of blood donation, especially plasma donation. That’s because my life depends on it.
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was just out of college and beginning my career in Houston, where I still live, I was diagnosed with a primary immunodeficiency disease. Since then, I’ve relied on immunoglobulin (Ig), a type of protein extracted from plasma. Without it, I would likely suffer multiple and persistent serious infections, any one of which could be fatal.
A rare disease diagnosis wasn’t in my plan, just as it wasn’t in the plans of anyone living with one of the 7,000 so-called rare diseases. Although each one affects fewer than 200,000 people, more than 25 million Americans have a rare disease.
Before my diagnosis, like many young people I felt mentally and physically strong and full of hope for my future. Two decades later, I still feel that way, thanks to my care teams and the legion of plasma donors.
Human blood is approximately 55% plasma, which contains water, salts, enzymes, antibodies, and other substances. It helps blood clot, fights disease, and performs other vital functions.
Plasma donation is different from blood donation in a key way: After blood is removed from the body, the plasma is separated out with a process called plasmapheresis and blood cells and other components are put back into the body. Plasma is later broken down into different products that become pharmaceuticals, like immunoglobulin, many of which can’t be made in a lab. Donating plasma takes about 90 minutes, and is truly a gift of life.
When I first began Ig treatment, I would have to take time off work and go to a hospital’s infusion center to spend much of the day with an IV in my arm. Today I get it through a portable infusion pump about the size of my hand. It lets me infuse Ig on the go. My pump has seen the world — more than 20 countries and four continents so far. In fact, the ability to do infusions wherever I happen to be has made it possible for me to travel the country to help educate patients and health care providers about primary immunodeficiency diseases.
Because Ig is used to treat a variety of life-threatening conditions, the demand continues to grow. There is currently an acute shortage of Ig. People across the country are being forced to prolong the time between treatments, take reduced doses, or turn to less-effective treatments. This puts them in vulnerable positions, facing increased health risks, including pain, organ damage, and debilitating infections.
Although plasma donation centers aren’t nearly as numerous as blood banks, they are located across the country. I’ve been fortunate to visit several and meet with people who take the time to donate. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to say thank you.
Unlike blood donors, plasma donors are typically compensated for their time, and I believe they should be. Plasma donations are used to make products which are then sold. That fair-market process, however, should not negate the recognition plasma donors deserve. This act is a unique human-to-human connection that enables people to share their good health with others.
Healthy plasma donors who commit to repeated donations are essential to creating the many life-saving treatments made from plasma. According to the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, 76% of plasma donors have been donating for two years or less, indicating a significant need — and opportunity — to recruit new and repeat donors.
I’m grateful every day for the healthy, committed individuals who donate plasma and allow me to live a happy, active life. I urge others to help the thousands of people like me who depend on this resource to consider becoming plasma donors, especially as we face this shortage.
Megan Ryan is a director at PwC in Houston, Texas.