At the height of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, bone marrow registry Gift of Life was faced with unprecedented logistics challenges to facilitate donations and transplants. Many donors lived under orders allowing travel only to essential workers. Health officials warned that flying increased risk of exposure. Both donors and patients in need of life-saving transplants were thrust into a high-stakes limbo.
“It’s been a challenge throughout the entire industry around the world,” said Richaele Nichiporenko, the Associate Director of Medical Services at Gift of Life. “Everybody is forced to do things differently. We all have to get creative and figure out how we are going to still save lives in the middle of this.”
Troubleshooting the problem of exposure, travel, and the race against time, Gift of Life came up with a solution that relies on Eko technology. The nonprofit registry was already using the Eko DUO, a combination digital stethoscope and handheld ECG, at its collection center in Boca Raton, Florida. The organization decided if it was too risky for donors to come to them, they would send the DUO to donors.
"The donor is at the heart of the process. We want to make things as easy and seamless for them as we can,” explained Nichiporenko. “If we send a DUO to them with an iPad, I can do the initial exam remotely."
The DUO and iPad are sent already paired and fully charged. When the donor opens the box, there is a note inside with a few simple instructions.
“Really all they have to do is turn it on and log in. It’s all ready to go,” said Nichiporenko, who conducts the virtual exams. “When I want to listen to heart and lung sounds I tell them, ‘okay put it under your shirt, move to the right, take a deep breath, press record. Stay there for fifteen seconds.’” She added that while it’s not required, she even gets an EKG from donors using the DUO.
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“Most of our donors, thankfully, are healthy, and that’s why they are able to donate. But the DUO is a nice screening tool to rule out any issues.”
During the telehealth visit, Nichiporenko pulls up the data on her computer in real-time. Afterward, she can save sounds and a PDF, including the ECG, to the donor’s chart.
“Then all they need to do is have a phlebotomy and lab report sent to me. Between the two things I can clear the donor, and they only have to travel once for collection. Eko helps us make it easy and safe for the donor,” said Nichiporenko.
Gift of Life has been facilitating transplants for patients in the United States and abroad for more than 20 years. However, last year, the public non-profit donor registry did something no other registry in the world had done before. It opened its own integrated collection center.
“What happened before is we would partner with third-party, hospital-based centers and facilitate the collection procedures there. Now we’ve established our own collection center as part of our end goal to narrow the gap,” explained Nichiporenko.
The “gap” is the time between when a patient is identified as needing life-saving treatment and when they actually receive that treatment. Having to rely on third-party collection centers often poses problems like limited appointments and lack of flexibility.
"Unfortunately, many patients need transplants sooner and sooner. There’s always the idea of how we are going to shorten that length of time and how we can streamline the process to help save their lives. Right now, using the DUO is a way to make that happen."
There is a reason Gift of Life chose an Eko product. They did their homework on electronic stethoscopes on the market.
“The Eko device, compared to some of the other devices we looked at, is user friendly. It’s easy to send them the iPad and send them the device. With the patient video component to it, I’m able to see them and walk through the exam process together. I find that very useful,” Nichiporenko said.
So far, Gift of Life has completed 150 collections at their new center in Boca Raton, Florida.
Gift of Life was started by Jay Feinberg, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991. He needed a bone marrow transplant to survive, but there were no matches in existing registries. His incredible family organized donor drives across the world, which found matches for hundreds of patients in need of treatment, but not Feinberg. One last drive was held. The last volunteer at that last drive was Feinberg’s match. It inspired an organization that has now found matches for nearly 18,000 patients in need of blood stem cells or bone marrow.
Today, faced with the many unforeseen consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, Gift of Life is in a race against time. Some of the registry’s biggest events were held on college campuses. COVID-19 has shut down campuses across the country, driving them online. Many states still have caps on the number of people at any one event.
“Instead of donors donating and patients getting the cells the next day, now we’re forced to cryopreserve the cells. We have to because if the patient already started chemo and radiation, if they don’t get the cells on time, they likely won’t survive,” said Nichiporenko.
The Eko DUO is a small but important part of helping Gift of Life continue to give that most precious gift. It’s a partnership that Eko is very proud to be connected with.
“An incredible amount of work goes into one person getting their life-saving stem cells. A lot of people, a lot of work, a lot of coming together. There are some really beautiful loving souls out there willing to donate.”
Not even the coronavirus can stop the beautiful, loving souls from giving or coming together. It’s just finding that new path to the end goal that may take some ingenuity, some technology, and a lot of heart.
Gift of Life encourages people to join the registry by visiting www.giftoflife.org.