Saving My Own Life: A Blood Donor’s Story

You hear it all the time: giving blood saves lives. And it’s true! But did you ever consider by giving blood, you might save your own life? That’s what happened to Lisa Sentman, a mom, speech pathologist and caretaker from Sammamish, Washington.

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Lisa at home with gifts she received from concerned friends. 

The Tip of the Iceberg

Lisa showed up to donate platelets on May 8. But when her phlebotomist pricked her finger, something was off. “He said, ‘Sorry, you can’t donate today, your numbers are too low,’” Lisa recalled. “I said, ‘What does that mean?’”

It meant her iron levels were down, which Lisa found odd. “I thought, OK, I already take a multivitamin, I already eat a lot of spinach, there’s not a whole lot more I can do.”

Lisa messaged her doctor to see if she should start taking iron supplements, and from there, things started moving quickly. Her doctor called her in for a blood test–and then another one. “She got the numbers the second day and said, ‘I want to see you.’” Lisa’s platelet, red blood cell, and white blood cell count were extremely low, and her spleen was enlarged. She went in for a bone marrow biopsy next, and waited.

An Unexpected Diagnosis

On May 22, just two weeks after Lisa attempted to donate blood, her doctor delivered the diagnosis: hairy cell leukemia. It had been growing in her body for an estimated 6-12 months.

Hairy Cell

An image of hairy cell leukemia on a lab slide. 

Lisa recalled lying awake in bed the nights immediately following the diagnosis. “I thought, ‘There’s this thing lurking in me,’” she said. “It would be OK during the day, but at night when I couldn’t sleep, I knew those cells were dividing and dividing and dividing.”

Looking back, Lisa said there were signs something wasn’t right. “I was very tired, but thought that was from my job,” she said. “I have always bruised easily, but I had half a dozen bruises on my leg at a given time.”

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Lisa during a chemo treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance

A Path Forward

Fortunately for Lisa, though hairy cell is a chronic condition, it’s also one of the most treatable forms of leukemia. On May 30, she started the first of five two-hour chemo sessions, and today, she has an 85-95% chance of going into remission. Incredibly, within a month’s time, Lisa went from being a hopeful blood donor, to a cancer survivor.

Though it was a whirlwind month, Lisa said the experience had a long-term impact. ”My lifestyle has changed, my perspective has changed,” she said. “I want to enjoy life more, slow it down, enjoy my family.”

She added, “I feel very blessed, very fortunate.”