They handed Pat Dawson her daughter’s birth certificate along with the death certificate.
Debra Dawson died in her mother’s arms 13 hours after being born, every organ damaged by antibodies in her mother’s blood. Now, 28 years later, those same antibodies prevent other mothers from suffering as Dawson did.
“I swear to God, I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through,” Dawson, 64, said just after donating plasma last Wednesday. “There was no counseling, there was nothing. And when I went home, nobody would talk to me about it.”
Debra Dawson died of hemolytic, or Rh, disease, which only occurs in infants born to mothers with Rh-negative blood and fathers with Rh-positive.
But it is also that combination that produces the vaccine, made from antibodies produced during such a mother’s first pregnancy.
The vaccine has helped thousands of babies, but it may be becoming a victim of its own success. It can only be produced from the blood of mothers who suffered from an adult version of the disease.
Possible donors are growing older. Many don’t realize they can donate. Unless a synthetic drug is developed, the human source of the antibodies will eventually dry up.
Dawson drives to the North American Biologicals Inc. center at 1219 N. Division twice a week to give plasma for about $30. She’s one of four regular antibody donors. The center freezes the plasma and sends it to its Florida headquarters for processing.
More donors are needed, said Linda Waddell, who coordinates the special antibody moms at NABI on Division. The vaccine is given to 35-40 at-risk mothers in Spokane every month.
“We’re not even coming close to meeting a Spokane need,” Waddell said. “It’s just really hard. I know these moms are out there. Getting the word out is extremely difficult.”
Most of the mothers went through hell years ago. When Rh-negative mothers give birth to Rh-positive babies, they create antibodies that can destroy red blood cells in subsequent pregnancies.
That destruction can cause anemia, heart failure, brain damage or death to the infant.
Beverly Schorzman, 64, watched three of her five children suffer after birth. Now she drives almost two hours from Harrison, Idaho, to Spokane twice a week to donate plasma.
Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Her second baby turned blue when taken out of the incubator. Her third child was jaundiced. The fifth had to have a complete blood transfusion.
The problem used to be fairly common, affecting 20,000 babies a year, until the vaccine Rh Immune Globulin was developed in 1968. Now, only about one in 1,000 women contract the disease because they aren’t immunized.
Dr. Kenneth Moise, a national expert on Rh disease, said it’s one of the only diseases where former victims can prevent future victims.
“Sooner or later, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot,” said Moise, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “You’re in a vicious cycle. I think that’s beginning to occur.”
Some areas of England are rationing the drug and cutting back injections. Russia has a dire shortage, as do underdeveloped countries.
Companies in England and the United States are working on a synthetic version of the drug, Moise said. Until the synthetic drugs prove effective, human donors are needed.
That surprised JoAnn Percy, who couldn’t believe that anyone wanted her blood. She tried donating whole blood in the past but was rejected because of the antibodies.
On Wednesday, the mother of four leaned back in one of the center’s 25 padded maroon beds.
A machine drew her blood into a tube and into a centrifuge, which spun out the straw-colored plasma into a container and filled another container with red blood cells. The cells were mixed with an anti-coagulant before being shot back into Percy. It took about 45 minutes.
The regular donors know each other, and they talk about their histories. They see each other on Wednesdays and Fridays. They talk about their children, and they talk about their trials, like Debra Dawson’s death.
“To walk into a hospital pregnant, and leave with nothing …,” Pat Dawson said.
“I couldn’t go to her funeral, because I was still in the hospital. If I can help anybody, I’ll do it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo