Colorado Blood Cancer Institute Marks 30th Anniversary Amidst A Blood Shortage

Colorado Blood Cancer Institute patients benefiting from blood donations encourage fellow Coloradans to participate in upcoming drives. The effort to get more donations comes during Blood Cancer Awareness Month and as the institute marks its 30th anniversary.

“I just thought nothing like this could happen to me,” said Chellie Voss, a CBCI patient. “It just came out of nowhere. … It was a total shock.”

Voss was diagnosed with leukemia less than five months after she gave birth to her son. She had just returned to work from her maternity leave and thought her symptoms of bleeding gums as well as exhaustion were just hormones. Doctors would later tell her she needed a bone marrow biopsy.

“It was a total whirlwind,” Voss told CBS4 on Sunday. “I didn’t really know what had happened and it felt pretty surreal.”

Blood supply has become a challenge locally, across the state and nationwide but it remains one of the most critical donations in medicine. Cancer patients like Voss cannot produce blood cells, so transfusions are lifesaving for them.

“After you donate the blood you feel, you always feel a little bit better, the blood that you donate really helps somebody surviving,” said Dr. Marcello Rotta, the leukemia service director of the CBCI. “The person receiving your blood knows that the blood comes from a donor.”

Rotta said it is an act of love to donate and it is an important part of his family’s life as both he and his wife are blood donors. Over the past 30 years, the CBCI’s accomplishments include the 5,000th bone marrow transplant. It is the largest site for that procedure in the region. That milestone includes the transplant that helped Voss. Her brother was the donor and even though siblings are only a match 25% of the time, he was a 100% match.

“They may not even realize how … they’re helping,” Voss said of donors.

Her brother is an active military member and had to get permission to travel in order to participate in the transplant. Eight years after the operation, she keeps busy with work and family. Her career in mental health gives her the chance to help others navigate a system they may be intimidating. Her experience can aid patients to see their journeys as parallel in different medical treatments. Voss continues to be an advocate for donations and hopes people remember the vital role it plays for so many in need, even during the pandemic.

“Sadly, blood cancer doesn’t stop and so even though our lives are kind of shut down a little bit because of it, the need doesn’t stop,” she said.

Doctors at CBCI have patients with chronic treatment so they will stay in touch with some for the rest of their lives. Their connection can begin at the hardest moment in life for someone with an illness so all in the institute feel a bond with those in their care as well as their families.

“We end up developing a familiarity with the patient that is unique, that is really one of the reasons I chose this field,” said Rotta.

Voss remembers donating blood when she was younger, she thought at the time it was just for trauma patients. She never realized it could help cancer patients, which would one day include herself. Voss also says donors should remember that in one sitting their donation can go on to help multiple recipients. She knows many people contributed to her blood donations beyond her brother and his stem cells in the transplant.

“Totally selfless, they don’t get anything for it,” Voss said.

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