Mend A Broken Heart With A Blood Donation

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 14:47
Donating Blood Helps Cardiac Patients

5 Questions With Dr. John Murphy

You've heard of "giving from the heart?" How about giving for it? A Blood donation isn't something that immediately comes to mind when thinking about how to help people with all types of cardiac conditions. But when it comes to matters of the heart, John Murphy, MD, FACHE, from Brigham and Women's Cardiovascular Associates at Care New England, tells us giving blood is a fantastic thing to do. It helps patients with all types of heart conditions, not just those who need open heart surgery. And ensuring blood is available at all times is critical no matter what the condition.

Why is blood important to heart function?

Simply put, red blood cells deliver oxygen to every organ in our bodies. The heart requires more oxygen than most other organs in the body, so it is more sensitive when oxygen levels drop. Our body’s ability to deliver oxygen is dependent on blood levels, so many heart conditions become worse when people become anemic (low on red blood cells).  A transfusion provides the red blood cells that deliver more oxygen. 

Why types of heart conditions are helped by blood transfusions?

There are several conditions which may require transfusions for treatment. One is chronic angina pectoris (chest pain).  This refers to people who have arterial blockages with chest pain during activity.  Their chest pain becomes more severe and more frequent with anemia, and a blood transfusion usually improves their symptoms considerably. 

A second condition is a heart attack.  For people who are in the hospital with a heart attack, particularly a large or complicated one, a low red blood cell count can make it worse. Blood transfusions help to stabilize these patients so they can continue their recovery process. 

A third condition is congestive heart failure where a patient's cardiovascular system fills up with fluid and causes difficulty breathing.  This condition is also worse with anemia and improves with a transfusion. 

Most of the time when someone is in the hospital with these types of cardiac conditions and needs blood, they may only need one transfusion, but that donation of blood leads to significant clinical improvement.

How frequently do people with heart conditions require blood transfusions?

The frequency of transfusions depends on the underlying cause.  If someone has active bleeding, which most commonly occurs in the gastrointestinal tract, several transfusions may be necessary to keep the oxygen supply to the heart stable until the bleeding is stopped.  For patients with chronic anemia or an exacerbation of anemia that can sometimes be caused by medications, a single transfusion is usually all that is needed when they are in the hospital with a cardiac problem.  For some people with myelodysplastic disorders where the bone marrow doesn’t make enough blood cells, regular transfusions can help control their chest pain or heart failure.

Do patients typically feel better after a blood transfusion?

Patients usually feel dramatically better after a transfusion.  Their chest pain improves, their breathing improves, and they feel less fatigued.  They even look better -- less pale and tired.

What would you say to someone who is on the fence about donating blood?

I would tell them that every donation counts.  A relatively small amount of blood makes a big difference to someone in the hospital with a cardiac problem.

So, what are you waiting for? February is American Heart Month. Open yours to giving the gift of life!

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John Murphy, MD, is director of cardiac informatics at Kent Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and cardiology. An invasive cardiologist, Dr. Murphy has special expertise in cardiac catheterization echocardiography. He is a member of the cardiovascular division at Brigham and Women's Hospital and is an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.