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After seeing her dad receive countless transfusions, Kristen was inspired to give back. 

Bravery sparked an idea

In 2011, Kristen Burma’s son Zac was just 11 months old when he began running a high fever and became lethargic. “I thought he was just teething, but our pediatrician was concerned,” she said. After their doctor took an x-ray, they were sent to Children’s Hospital. Shortly thereafter, Zac was diagnosed with neuroblastoma—a rare childhood cancer.

Zac underwent surgery to have a tumor removed and was later declared in remission. But it set Kristen on a course to give back.

“My dad was an avid blood donor,” she recalled. “He would always tell me to donate. I remember it was my last day at Children’s and Zac was getting his port taken out. At that time, I told my parents, ‘If my son can be brave enough to get his port out, I can give blood.’”

True to her word, Kristen gave blood at a workplace blood drive. But a few donations later, she received a false positive on one of the dozen tests performed on her blood donation. At the time, there was nothing she could do to correct her records. She shelved the idea of donating and went on with her life.

The donor becomes the patient

Nine years later, Kristen’s dad—the blood donor—started feeling ill. It was 2020; the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit, he was moving houses, he’d sold his business, and he’d recently recovered from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“He went in to get checked out, thinking his illness was from one of these causes. But he came out with a diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma,” said Kristen. “Unlike non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mantle cell has no cure. And so we started this new journey.”

Because of the lymphoma, Kristen’s dad was no longer able to produce blood or platelets. He began receiving almost-daily blood and platelet transfusions.

“Those transfusions were literally keeping him alive,” Kristen said. “He’d get a transfusion and everything about him would change. And the next day we’d do it all over.”

But the treatments weren’t sustainable, and Kristen’s dad was using a tremendous amount of blood products. “Once he realized how much he was using, he decided it was time to stop. He wanted those products to go to someone else. And he meant it.”

So Kristen’s dad stopped his blood and platelet transfusions. Three days later, he died.

The impact

A few months later, Kristen did the math. She realized that her dad had used around 1,800 individual units of blood products during his treatment.

“The last time I donated, I got a false positive and was told I was forever deferred,” Kristen said. “I kept meaning to call the blood center to see if I could come in and try again, and I kept putting it off. But as my dad’s transfusions became daily, I realized I had to do something. When I called, I learned that the FDA had changed its policies so that I could come back!”

When she finished her donation, she was amazed. “I said, ‘that’s all you collected from me? Because my dad was receiving double that with each transfusion.’”

A model for others

With her deferral lifted and her dad’s legacy of giving blood well ingrained, Kristen set out to give back as often as she could.

“You hear about transfusions, and I’d see signs up at the blood center and on the bloodmobile,” she said. “But you don’t fully understand it until you’ve personally seen it and experienced it. We had extra time with my dad because of donors. What would have happened if there hadn’t been enough?”

Kristen now gives platelets as often as she’s eligible—and she tries to spread the word to others. “Sometimes I’ll drop my ‘I Donated’ sticker on the desk of a coworker who says they’re too scared to give. It’s my way of reminding them that it’s still important.”

So what does Kristen tell people who say they’re too scared—or too busy—to give?

“I tell them, ‘I know it can be scary. You don’t have to look. The people taking care of you know what you’re going through.’ And besides—blood literally kept my dad alive. Those stories you’ve seen on the posters and the billboards are true.”

Every time she donates, Kristen remembers her dad. “Of course I sometimes feel sad and angry that he’s gone. But I know I have to try to turn that energy into something else. For me, it’s going in every two weeks and donating platelets. It makes me feel really good because I know I just helped somebody. That keeps me moving forward.”

Find out more about how you can help save the lives of infants, children, and adults through blood donation. Learn more at About Blood.