A spotlight on plasma: Thrombotrol

Thrombus. It sounds like something you learned about at school in maths, doesn’t it? Around the same time as parallelograms or equilateral triangles. The word itself offers little clue of the massive and shattering impact it can have. You’ve probably heard of it by its more common name: a blood clot.

A clot can block the blood flow in our veins or arteries with devastating consequences – a heart attack, stroke or a piece can break off from a thrombus in a vein and become an embolus in the lungs.

This is what happened to Nalini, now mum to a five year old daughter, who developed a thrombus and an embolus when her baby girl was just six months old.

Nalini Meyer with her daughter in 2016

Nalini with her daughter in 2016

Shortly after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and just months after giving birth to a healthy daughter, Nalini became ill. After a blood test she was admitted to hospital that afternoon with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and began chemotherapy the same day. Between 2011 and 2013 Nalini needed an astonishing 59 blood products to pull through.

Nalini’s illness was tough and unrelenting, with life-threatening complications: infections and a thrombus.  She developed a thrombus in the deep veins in her leg which extended up into the veins in the pelvis and then the vena cava.  A chunk of the thrombus broke free and ended up in her lungs, producing a serious pulmonary embolus. It was the thrombus and embolus, and the risk of more of these happening in the next few days that meant she needed six transfusions of Thrombotrol.

Thrombotrol is a concentrated form of Antithrombin, a clever little protein that keeps the blood flowing. It is essential for keeping the clotting process under control.  What makes this life-saving medicine extra special is that Thrombotrol can only be made from human plasma; it can’t be created in treatment-sized doses from synthetic molecules in a laboratory. The plasma is donated by people who have normal amounts of these little proteins and given to those who don’t.

Nalini says that at times it was touch and go. ‘At 11pm one night the hospital phoned my husband and told him to ‘bring the baby now’’ – she was just so ill. She says she is hugely grateful to the blood donors who saved her life, through vital transfusions of blood, platelets, fresh frozen plasma and Thrombotrol.

Thrombotrol is one of the many reasons why the people who give plasma are so important. In New Zealand, people like Nalini can be treated with 13 different lifesaving products made from plasma donations. In fact, New Zealand Blood Service needs to collect around 1,000 plasma donations from New Zealanders every week to meet the need for plasma products.

‘Each of the blood products I received allowed me to continue the rigorous and unrelenting chemotherapy,’ Nalini says. ‘Each time I received a bag or bottle of ‘goodies’, I would look up at it with such gratitude.’

About donating plasma

Donating plasma is similar to giving whole blood (this is what you probably think of when you hear ‘blood donation’). In fact one of the eligibility criteria to give plasma is that you need to have donated whole blood at least once in the last two years. When giving plasma, whole blood is taken through a needle in one arm, just as for a whole blood donation. A machine then separates out the plasma, returning the rest of the blood to the donor through the same needle. This process is called apheresis (pronounced ay-fur-ee-sis) meaning ‘to separate’.

If you’re a whole blood donor, why not consider switching to plasma donation? To become a plasma donor, you need to:

  • Be 18-60 years old
  • Meet certain height and weight requirements
  • Have donated whole blood at least once in the last two years
  • Meet donor eligibility requirements listed in the donor questionnaire
  • Have suitable veins and haemoglobin levels
  • Be able to donate at the Epsom (Auckland), North Shore (Auckland), Hamilton, Tauranga, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin Blood Donor Centres.

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