When donating blood is ‘the kindest thing you can do’

November 15, 2021 10:59 AM

Blood transfusions were the only thing that helped Connor Burke cope with the fatigue of his chemotherapy. Now, amid a national blood shortage, he’s encouraging more people to donate blood.

young man in yellow shirt on left and on right same young man in mask and blue shirt
U-M junior Connor Burke has seen firsthand how much blood donation can help with the side effects of his cancer treatment. Photos courtesy of Burke

Oct. 26, 2021 was not a good day for Brutus Buckeye.

The mascot for Ohio State University was getting walloped. Every hour or so, University of Michigan students would don blindfolds and swing streamer-covered sticks at a piñata version of the figure, eager to prove that they were doing their part to beat their biggest rival. 

Unsurprisingly, Brutus wasn’t faring well. But it was a great day for Connor Burke.

The junior biochemistry major grinned from behind the Blood Drives United table a few feet away. Student after student, fresh off their attempted mascot-busting, had told Burke and the other volunteers that they’d already signed up to donate blood at one of the organization’s upcoming blood drives, collectively nicknamed the Blood Battle because they serve as a competition to collect more pints of blood than Ohio State.

As a member of Blood Drives United’s executive board, Burke was encouraged by the number of fellow students who seemed interested in donating, especially given the pandemic-related shortage of blood (the American Red Cross has one of its lowest supplies of blood in years.)

But there was another reason why he was excited: He knew firsthand how important blood could be.

“It’s so heartwarming to see people interested in donating blood because that has helped me so much during treatment and has been a big part of why I’ve had a positive outcome,” Burke said. “So hopefully we can help a lot of other patients like myself see that same success.”

The power of blood

Burke is undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that develops in the precursors of white blood cells called lymphocytes. 

He was diagnosed a month after his freshman year at U-M ended, when a high fever, night sweats and a worrying blood test prompted his physicians near his home in Grand Rapids to investigate further.

SEE ALSO: What it’s really like to give blood

He remembers being in disbelief when he got the call that he had cancer, to the point that he handed the phone to his mother and went to take a shower. Afterwards, he looked in the mirror and broke down crying.

“Up until that point, it was really just something that happens to other people, not to me,” Burke said.

The next several months of treatment at Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center (which became part of the Michigan Medicine-affiliated Cancer Network of West Michigan the same year) were difficult. Burke fell into the category of adolescent and young adult cancer patients, who straddle children’s hospitals and adult cancer centers in terms of both messaging and treatment.

In this case, Burke was given chemotherapy in a similar manner to kids much younger than him with leukemia because of recent evidence that young adults could tolerate this more intensive chemotherapy regimen and that it was more effective for them.

At the time, though, Burke was exhausted from the aggressive treatment, to the point that he couldn’t walk up stairs without help. Tingling developed in his fingers and pain in his bones. Even his bowel movements were erratic.

“I took all these other medications that were supposed to deal with the side effects, but they had their own side effects,” he said. “It felt like a ripple effect going outward, like what’s the next problem to deal with?”

The most effective solution was blood transfusions.

These gave Burke a temporary reprieve from the debilitating fatigue that came when the chemo killed the rapidly dividing cells in his body, including his cancerous lymphocytes but also the red blood cells that provide oxygen.

"Most acute leukemia patients are touched by at least 50 to 75 individuals that donate blood. It really does take a village."
Dale Lee Bixby, M.D., Ph.D.

Leukemia patients are often dependent on transfusions for at least the first eight months of treatment because their blood cell counts are so low that they would die without additional blood, says Dale Bixby, M.D., Ph.D., the inpatient hematology director and the clinical director of the bone marrow transplant and leukemia ambulatory care unit at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. 

SEE ALSO: A 4-Year-Old’s Journey with Sickle Cell Disease

“Most acute leukemia patients are touched by at least 50 to 75 individuals that donate blood,” Bixby said. “That’s a large pool of people that are needed to help support treatment — not just one loved one. It really does take a village.”

So, as family friends asked how they could help, Burke’s parents began telling them to donate blood.

“They saw how much a unit of packed red blood cells could help me go from not being able to walk to functioning a little more normally for a couple of days,” Burke said.

So far, the strategy has worked: In winter 2020, Burke was ready to transfer to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital for maintenance therapy, a lighter regimen than his initial treatment — and return to U-M.

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“If you ask most adults going through ALL therapy, just getting through therapy is exceptionally challenging,” said Bixby, who became Burke’s doctor once he transferred to Mott. “To complete an undergrad education goes above and beyond.”

“Connor has impressed the hell out of me,” he added. “He is without a doubt one of the more adherent, compliant patients — a hematologist’s dream in terms of doing what we say.”

Most importantly, Burke has had no evidence of cancer for more than two years (his leukemia “melted,” Bixby says.)

If all continues to go well, he’ll stop treatment in September 2022. He’ll undergo many more blood draws and other tests until his milestone five-year anniversary, when, if the cancer hasn’t returned, it will be unlikely to come back.

The impact of cancer

But Burke isn’t waiting until then to use the insight he’s gained as a cancer patient to better the world. This past summer, he served as a research intern at the Van Andel Institute, a nonprofit biomedical research and science education organization that specializes in cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Bixby wrote him a recommendation letter as part of his application.

As a pre-med student, Burke says he’s been able to engage with his professors from a different perspective than his classmates, discussing, for example, the differences between the drugs he’s learning about in his textbooks and the developments that have been made since that he’s seen in his own treatment. He recently scored in the 98th percentile on the Medical College Admissions test and intends to go into hematology/oncology in the future. 

“He’s still coming to see me every month and going through therapy, which can’t be easy mentally or physically,” Bixby said. “But to excel to that point to be able to complete a national pre-board exam and to score that high, that tells you everything you need to know about Connor.”

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“After my freshman year, I knew I wanted to go into medicine, but I didn’t really know why,” Burke said. “I liked the challenge of taking hard classes and doing well in them, and I knew that I could use the ability that I had to do that to help other people. It became even more important to me now that I had cancer to figure out what I could do for patients like myself, with this knowledge of what it feels like to be told you have cancer and also what it feels like physically to take these chemotherapeutic drugs.”

He’ll be bringing that knowledge to the Blood Battle drives, including the largest, Be a Hero at the Big House on Nov. 21, where he encourages everyone who’s eligible to donate blood.

“A lot of people think of blood donation in the context of providing blood for emergency procedures like a car crash or anything that could cause someone to need blood immediately and, of course, that is incredibly important,” he said. “But what people don't think about very often are cases like mine, where it's not necessarily an acute need for blood, but it still enforces and encourages a good outcome for cancer patients.”

He added: “Giving blood is pretty much the kindest thing you can do for a patient like me.”

Be a Hero at the Big House will be held Nov. 21 at the Jack Roth Stadium Club at Michigan Stadium. Register to donate blood at the event. Make an appointment to donate at a different Blood Battle drive(you can also visit redcrossblood.org and type the promo code “goblue” into the search box to find the Blood Battle drives.)