Metro Detroiter blood donor saved by own blood donation

She donated blood to help save lives, never imagining the life saved would be her own

Merrissa Hoffman, 32, of Rochester Hills had always wanted to donate blood, but she had never actually done it. When a friend who is a regular donor mentioned she had an appointment to give, Hoffman decided to make one too.

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. – Merrissa Hoffman, 32, of Rochester Hills had always wanted to donate blood, but she had never actually done it. When a friend who is a regular donor mentioned she had an appointment to give, Hoffman decided to make one too.

“First time donor. I was so excited. I got the shirt there. It was a great experience. I loved every part of it,” said Hoffman.

The donation process went smoothly, and Hoffman quickly made plans to give again as soon as she was eligible.

But just a few days later, she received a letter from the American Red Cross.

“There was something from my blood donation that looked abnormal,” said Hoffman.

When you donate blood, tubes of blood are also collected to be sent for testing. Technicians perform more than 12 different tests on each sample, checking for infectious diseases such as HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis.

But the tubes are first put into a centrifuge where the blood is spun and separated into its various parts.  The middle layer, called the “buffy coat,” is supposed to be thin.  Hoffman’s was unusually thick.

“They were telling me that it was concerning, and I should probably go see a doctor and see what’s going on,” explained Hoffman.

The letter was troubling because Hoffman had been suffering from headaches and trouble sleeping -- symptoms she blamed on stress from her work as a paralegal and legal assistant.

When she started seeing white spots in her vision, a primary care physician suspected she was suffering from migraine with aura.

“I was feeling tired and a little bit cold. Again, I just thought maybe I was coming down with something,” said Hoffman.

But after blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy, Hoffman was stunned to learn the truth.

“It turns out that I have chronic myeloid leukemia,” said Hoffman.

Chronic myeloid leukemia is a type of cancer that begins in cells that help make our blood.

It’s a finding that is rare among blood donors, said Dr. Barry Siegfried, medical director for the Red Cross Michigan Region.

“I believe I’ve had only one other instance where I’ve heard back from the donor that that they had a diagnosis of leukemia following our laboratory finding,” said Siegfried.  “And that’s over the course of about 20 years.”

But Siegfried said their testing does occasionally detect health problems for would-be donors like Hoffman.

“It’s not of course the primary purpose of our testing and our examination of donor sample tubes to find these sorts of things, but if we do and we feel they could have significant impact on donors’ health, we certainly notify them,” said Siegfried.  “We certainly wish Ms. Hoffman all the best. We’re glad to be able to help her and we thank her for attempting to donate and for donating.”

Siegfried stressed if you think you have a health problem, especially an infectious disease, you should not donate blood solely for the screening.  Instead, contact your doctor or the health department for testing.

Hoffman said she is so grateful for the testing run by the Red Cross and their quick notification.

“It’s been life-changing. I’d say that it’s opened my eyes in a lot of ways.  Life is short, and you know, you never know one day when it’s going to change, and I’m grateful. You know, I’m not happy that I have leukemia, but I’m happy that I found it early, and that it’s treatable and that I’m doing okay now,” said Hoffman.  “I have to take a pill every single day, which has worked pretty quickly to get my numbers under control.”

So what if Hoffman had not decided to donate blood that day?

“It’s a really scary thought. I mean, I’m young and healthy, right? I just attributed this to stress,” said Hoffman. “So it could have been horrible.”

Because of the diagnosis, Hoffman was disappointed to learn she can no longer donate blood, but she’s now on a mission to encourage others to do so.

“Make the time. I used to be one of those people who was ‘too busy,’ right?  There’s so much else going on in the world, but taking the time to do this really makes a difference, and I hope others will.”

For Hoffman, it was the gift that gave back.  She donated blood hoping to save others’ lives.

“And it saved mine,” said Hoffman.

  • To find out where to donate blood at upcoming Gardner-White blood drives, click here
  • To learn more about blood donation, click here
  • Hoffman’s friends organized a GoFundMe page to help with her medical expenses.  You can find it here