Cancer battle changes view of donating blood

Tom May used to donate blood, but not often. If he had it to do over, he’d give as much as possible. But he can’t.

Diagnosed in 2005 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, May has received numerous blood transfusions. Because of the disease, he’s no longer eligible to give blood. But he has words of encouragement and thanks for anyone who does.

“It saves people’s lives, and you just never know when you may need it,” said May, who works at the General Alumni Association at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s just so good and useful, and a lot of people need it.”

A lot of people will be able to give on June 7 at the 23rd annual Carolina Blood Drive, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Dean Smith Center at UNC, sponsored by UNC and the American Red Cross. Information and registration are available at www.unc.edu/blood. (Details are listed below).

The hardest part of what May calls his six-year cancer “adventure” was at the start, when he and his wife, Susie, learned he had Stage 4B (worst possible case) cancer, with at best a 50 percent chance of living. The reaction of his UNC oncologist, assistant professor of medicine Dr. Peter Voorhees, gave May something to cling to throughout his experience: “We’ll go for the cure.”

May underwent six months of one type of chemotherapy, then six months of another, then a week of massive doses in preparation for a bone marrow transplant. May continued to work until spring of 2006, when he went on medical disability and into semi-isolation because his immune system was so weakened by the chemo.

“They take you as close to death as they can without killing you,” he said. “I looked at the treatments as a way to win, thinking positively that they would work, and refused to let them get me down.”

In September 2006, May had bluegrass music played while the transplant was done. His own stem cells, harvested earlier, were infused back into his body.

Dr. Tom Shea, one of May’s physicians, is a professor of medicine at UNC and directs the Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program at UNC Hospitals and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Blood transfusions are critical to the successful treatments of patients with diseases like cancer when they are undergoing chemotherapy, as well as patients in surgery where loss of blood during the operation can be a major problem,” Shea said. “While we try to reduce transfusions, we can never avoid them altogether and would be unable to undertake life-saving treatments like organ or bone marrow transplants unless we had blood products such as red blood cells or platelets available for our patients.”

In UNC Hospitals for about two weeks after the operation, May needed one blood transfusion and two units of platelets – cell fragments in blood that aid in clotting.

For four years, the lymphoma stayed in remission. “I was getting good check-ups, with no sign of the cancer coming back,” May said. But last Dec. 24, Susie suffered abdominal pains. May took her to a health care facility, where he picked up a virus that attacked his immune system and spleen and began destroying his platelets.

Susie recovered after having her gall bladder out, while May was put on a cocktail of drugs. He was in and out of UNC Hospitals for months. “I would do well on the drugs, but when I got off of them I would crash again.”

Finally doctors decided the best solution would be to take out May’s spleen, which they did via a laparoscopy April 19. But while he was in recovery, a blood vessel that had been connected to the spleen, then sealed off in the laparoscopy, broke open.

“They rushed me back into the operating room, and the second operation was an open incision,” May said. He needed four units of blood to replace what he had lost.

But by the end of April, May, 62, was back on the job as the alumni association’s printing and mailing coordinator, a post he will have held for 25 years come June. If he maintains good health for another six months to a year, he’ll be considered cured. He’s back to what he loves: family, music, photography, plus sunshine, flowers.

“Everything is beautiful,” he said. “The little problems that pop up in everyone’s lives do not take on the same priority anymore. It makes you appreciate every day, every hour, every minute.”

His sunny disposition still intact, May added: “I try to laugh about everything. It’s good for your health.”

CAROLINA BLOOD DRIVE FACTS

  • What: One of the largest American Red Cross blood drives on the East Coast, also sponsored by UNC.
  • When: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 7
  • Where: Dean E. Smith Center, Bowles Drive off Manning Drive, Chapel Hill
  • Who: Donors from campus and the surrounding area welcome.
  • Appointments, eligibility and information: www.unc.edu/bloodIcon indicating that a link will open an external site. (Walk-ins welcome, but appointments strongly suggested).
  • Parking: Free in lots around the center.
  • Snack choices after donating: Krispy Kreme doughnuts, pizza, barbecue, veggie wraps, breakfast pastries, sausage biscuits, juice, beverages, more.
  • Prizes: T-shirts; door prizes including two tickets to each of three UNC games, in football and men’s (non-conference) and women’s (conference) basketball; entry post-donation into a drawing for two pair of round-trip Delta Airlines tickets.
  • Celebrity visitors expected: Chancellor Holden Thorp and Patti Thorp; head football coach Butch Davis and Tammy Davis; basketball legend and radio announcer Eric Montross; Dr. William Roper, dean of the medical school and CEO of UNC Health Care.
  • Sponsors: UNC Human Resources, Student Stores, Athletics, Printing Services, a committee from across campus; American Red Cross