ECU Blood Challenge: Spring '09

At a university of more than 27,000 students, and many more faculty and staff members, collecting nearly 400 pints of blood may not seem like a huge accomplishment. But it is. The truth is that anytime anyone gives blood, it is a big deal. Anyone who doubts this should meet Kristen Brown.

Brown, a 2007 ECU grad, was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in May of last year. The rare blood disease affects one out of 500,000 people, and causes an individual’s immune system to attack its own bone marrow cells. Without treatment, the patient can no longer produce an adequate blood supply.

Kristen Brown at ECU's Blood Challenge

Kristen Brown '07, shared her amazing story of survival with blood donors at the recent ECU Blood Challenge.

For Brown, the diagnosis was a complete shock.

“I went to the doctor for a regular checkup. They pricked my finger like they always do to test my blood, and the nurse freaked out. She went and got three other nurses and they freaked out too. They said they had never see a number that low before,” she said. “The doctor ordered blood tests and told me that I wouldn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks unless there was a problem. They called me in less than an hour.”

Brown’s disease had already taken a heavy toll on her body’s blood supply. The tests revealed that her blood platelet count, which is normally between 140 and 440, was three. Her hemoglobin—the number the nurses had never seen so low—was 2 g/dl (grams per deciliter). Normal levels for women range from 12 to 15 g/dl.

Her low hemoglobin meant that Brown’s blood wasn’t carrying sufficient oxygen to her organs. Her incredibly low platelet count meant that her blood would not clot were she injured. She received three blood transfusions that first night, and was admitted into the hospital.

Over the next six months, Brown received approximately 100 blood transfusions. Doctors finally decided to attempt a bone marrow transplant, something done in only the most severe cases. Fortunately for Brown, her younger sister and current ECU sophomore Katlin Cartwright, was a perfect match, and in October of last year, Brown underwent the transplant.

As abrupt and severe was her diagnosis was, Brown’s recovery has been equally so. After being told she would stay in the hospital for 90 days after the transplant, she was discharged after only 43. Doctors told her she would be unable to go back to work for six months, but she was back a week and a half after leaving the hospital. She never even experienced the sickness and fever commonly experienced by bone marrow recipients.

Brown decided to come back to ECU for the ECU Blood Challenge to share her amazing story with students and to say thank you to those who gave.

Much of the blood collected at the ECU Blood Challenge will be used locally at Pitt County Memorial Hospital.

“A lot of people saved my life because they donated blood,” she Brown. “I’m just thankful to everybody, and I wanted to give back and tell my story because I think that sometimes people can’t relate to the idea of receiving blood. If they meet someone and hear about how they were helped, they might be more apt to give.”

The ECU Blood Challenge began as a challenge between students in two courses in the College of Health and Human Performance, Exercise 1000 and the Health 1000. In the years since its inception, the event has grown, nearly doubling the amount of blood collected in only three years.

In a way, the ECU Blood Challenge is a work in progress. Since moving to the Student Recreation Center from Christenbury Gymnasium two years ago, organizers Debra Tavasso and Jeannine Rushing have been hoping to expand the drive to actively include all of campus. This year was the first that the idea of the challenge was offered up to the entire university.

“We were hearing from people who wanted to give but they didn’t think they could because they weren’t in the health or exercise classes,” said Tavasso. “We have always welcomed people who wanted to donate, but this year we thought we should really open it up to everyone.”

This fall, greater efforts will be made to include more of campus by encouraging inter-departmental, and inter-organizational challenges.

“Any organization, any department on campus can challenge any other department or organization on campus, and we will keep the record of how many units they donate and present to them the winner of the challenge,” said Rushing.

There was even talk of directly competing against other schools. Pirates aren’t known to back down from challenges, but a much larger effort will be required to successfully challenge our rivals, some of whom have collected more than 1,000 units in a single on-campus blood drive.

“I think the idea of a challenge is a good one, because students who wouldn’t normally give blood on their own have an incentive to at least try the experience and figure out if it is for them or not,” said senior family and community service major Becky Hardy. “If they realize that, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad,’ then it is a way for them to continue to give without needing that incentive later on.”

This year, organizers set a goal of 450 units. And while that number was not reached, it should be noted that approximately 480 students, faculty, and staff attempted to donate, but for various reasons were unable to do so. Had everyone who wanted to give blood, been able, the goal would have been easily surpassed.

There is little argument as to the scalability of ECU’s Blood Challenge. The Student Recreation Center can easily accommodate twice as many donors and the area Red Cross already brings in regional support staff from Virginia for the drive. Even at its current size, the drive is the largest in Pitt County.

If anyone needed even more incentive to give blood, donating at the ECU event means that the life you save by donating blood, just may be your own.

“Most, not all, but most of the blood collected here on campus, be it at this blood drive or other blood drives, goes to Pitt County Memorial Hospital,” said Elizabeth Clark, ECU Red Cross representative.

The next ECU Blood Challenge will take place in October at the Student Recreation Center on ECU’s Main Campus.