FLINTON – Laurie Hartman Wombacher is looking for some help to see if the third time is the charm.
The 51-year-old White Township resident is in her third battle with acute myeloid leukemia and needs a blood stem cell donor.
But stem cell donations and blood donations generally have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Not only have potential donors been reluctant to come to medical facilities during the crisis, but many community drives have been canceled because schools and church buildings were closed, organizers say.
Wombacher was first diagnosed in 2016 after feeling “unwell” for about a month.
“I couldn’t place a finger on it,” she said at her home in the Cambria County community of Glendale Yearound. “I just knew there was something wrong.”
Tests at Conemaugh Miners Medical Center in Hastings showed anemia.
As a nurse, Wombacher immediately suspected leukemia, and lab tests confirmed her self-diagnosis.
“My first thought was: How am I telling my family?” she said.
She was referred to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown and then to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh for a bone marrow biopsy, which identified her specific type of leukemia – a form of blood cancer.
Two rounds of chemotherapy put her into remission, and she received two stem cell transplant from her brother.
Wombacher is eligible for a stem cell transplant, but no matching donor has been found. In the meantime, she is being treated with regular blood transfusions.
“I’ll continue to need blood donations until a donor is found,” she said.
A virtual stem cell drive has been launched through the National Bone Marrow Program’s Be The Match website. Potential donors can join at join.bethematch.org/swab4Laurie.
Those enrolling will receive cheek swab kits in the mail. The returned swabs would analyzed against information stored in a donor database.
“It is really complicated to find a match,” Be The Match spokeswoman Erica Sevilla said. “Only one in every 430 people who join the registry is actually going to be a donor.”
There are currently about 22 million people in the registry, which matches donors for the 70% of patients who are unable to find suitable donors within their families, Sevilla said.
About 80% of donors can provide stem cell transplants through a process similar to blood plasma donation. Participants receive injections that stimulate the production of stem cells prior to a donation.
“Stem cells tell our bodies to create healthy red and white blood cells,” Sevilla said.
The remaining 20% of donors provide bone marrow transplants, which are extracted from behind the pelvic bone with the use of a long needle. Donors are placed under anesthesia for the procedure and may experience some soreness, Sevilla said.
Recruiting potential donors has been hampered during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It has been really difficult to get our message out right now because of COVID,” she said. “We can’t host drives.”
It’s a similar story for the American Red Cross blood services, Greater Pennsylvania Region spokeswoman Lisa Landis said.
“Donations continue to be extremely low,” Landis said. “Many hospitals and organizations are returning with elective surgeries and procedures, so there is an extreme need for blood. Every two seconds someone is in need of life-saving blood.”
The pandemic shutdown has exacerbated the blood supply’s normal summer pressure caused by donor vacations and busy schedules, she said.
The Red Cross has made adjustments to keep donors, staff and volunteers safe, and the organization has begun offering COVID-19 antibody tests for all donors. The test shows whether the individual had prior exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“We want to be able to provide opportunities for healthy donors to come out and donate blood,” Landis said. “We are encouraging people to make appointments.”
Donors can find blood drives and schedule appointments by visiting the Red Cross website, redcrossblood.org.