Last year, Shirley Polk’s life changed forever. On Friday, it changed again, thanks to a meeting she had with 15 strangers who helped save her life.
Last September, the 67-year old, whose liver and kidney suddenly failed after she developed acute autoimmune disease, received a transplant of both organs at Reagan UCLA Medical Center. On Jan. 13, at an event arranged by UCLA, she met 15 of the 59 strangers whose blood donations made possible the transplant surgeries that saved her life. Thanks to her donors’ generosity, Polk was transfused with 32 units of whole blood, 27 units of plasma and 11 units of platelets.
Polk’s blood donors reflect the rich ethnic diversity of Los Angeles. She is African-American. Among her donors were individuals who hail from Syria, Iran, Turkey, Korea, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines and Taiwan.
“I didn’t realize how many people had a hand in my journey,” said Polk to her donor-heroes. “You gave me a part of your life so that I could again have mine. I am so grateful and humbled that so many complete strangers gave of themselves.”
Due to confidentiality laws, most blood donors never know who receives their blood. Similarly, patients never learn the identities of those who donate their time and blood to save their lives.
In this case, however, by obtaining permission from many of the donors, UCLA provided Polk with a unique opportunity: to meet, hug and thank some the people who saved her life.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for donors who donate altruistically and confidentially to see where their blood donations actually went,” said Dr. Dawn Ward, medical director of the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center. “When you look around the room, you see donors of all ages from 16 years old on. You see all shapes and sizes; you see the representation of all colors and diverse backgrounds. Yet, we all have one common purpose. We share the commitment to provide the limited resource blood for patients in need.”
Among those who got to meet Polk was Tina Chen, 42, director of finance and budget for UCLA’s Housing and Hospitality Services and a first-time donor.
“Knowing I have helped save someone’s life,” Chen said, “has made me a blood donor for life. It’s very gratifying to actually meet the person you’re helping.”
Blood donor Gabriel Soufo, 28, was also moved by his meeting with Polk. After his parents emigrated from Syria in the ’80s, he was the first generation of his family to be born in the U.S. The UCLA alumnus began giving blood in high school and has a tradition of donating platelets with a close friend on their birthdays.
“I see the horror that’s happening across the world, and it’s a life I easily could have experienced if my parents hadn’t left Syria,” Soufo said. “Donating is my way of helping humanity. Sharing my health with someone makes me feel like I’m making the world a better place.”
Three high school students from Verdugo Hills High School were also on hand to meet the woman whose life they helped save. In fact, 85 percent of UCLA’s blood donations come from students at local high schools. Without them, UCLA Health patients would face a blood shortage.
The generosity of Polk’s donors was vital to saving her life, according to Dr. Fady Kaldas, surgical director of the liver intensive care unit and medical director of the UCLA Liver Transplantation Service.
“Shirley Polk suffered sudden onset of autoimmune disease that could have proved fatal without a rapid transplant,” he said to the assembled crowd of nearly 100. “She was really ill — in intensive care for a month before transplant. Shirley needed a lot of blood since liver transplants require multiple units of blood.
“Without blood, we could have all the livers in the world and not be able to perform a transplant,” Kaldas added. “In many ways, you are the unsung heroes, and your blood donations are truly impactful.”
Ward, the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center director, noted that last year, with the help of blood donors, the center supplied over 60,000 blood and blood components comprised of 22,000 whole blood donations, 9,000 platelets units and 25,000-plus plasma products.
Everyone has the opportunity to become a donor-hero. How many lives will you save this year? Learn more at gotblood.ucla.edu.