New Hanover Regional Medical Center has made it easier for area residents to access a specialized treatment that removes disease-causing components from the blood.
Before, people who would benefit from the treatment – plasmapheresis – would have to travel about two hours out of town, or worse, miss out, which could increase the risk of complications, said Kevin Briggs, NHRMC’s Administrator of Laboratory and Respiratory Care Services. NHRMC is now offering plasmapheresis through a partnership with the Cape Fear Chapter of the American Red Cross.
“This service has enabled us to do something in our community that we weren’t able to do before, and it’s allowing us to bring access to specialized care that was previously unavailable to our area,” Briggs said. “Providing this service allows people to get the care they need in our community and to have a continued relationship with the providers they are comfortable with, which I think helps a lot.”
Plasmapheresis is a process in which the plasma, the liquid part of the blood, is separated from the blood cells. Typically, the plasma is replaced with another solution such as albumin, or the plasma is treated and then returned to your body.
“Plasma often contains things that are causing disease for people,” said Dr. Matthew D. Kalp, an NHRMC neurologist. “Through plasmapheresis we’re taking out certain proteins, such as immune complexes, that are causing disease.”
The process requires patients to have a catheter or special IV that allows blood to pass through a plasmapheresis machine where it is separated into its various components.
Dr. Kalp said about 50 percent of the diseases plasmapheresis is used for at NHRMC are neurological disorders, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and myasthenia gravis. “In those diseases our immune system makes an autoantibody, which is an antibody that’s attacking a part of our own body,” he said. “For people with Guillain-Barré syndrome, their immune system makes an antibody that starts attacking the insulation on nerves. With myasthenia gravis the immune system makes antibodies that attack where the nerve meets the muscle, which is called the neuromuscular junction.”
Dr. Kalp said one of the quickest ways to improve such conditions is to use plasmapheresis to remove proteins or disease-causing antibodies that are causing the damage.
Patients who need this treatment can experience debilitating symptoms and getting treatment quickly makes a difference. “Some patients are coming to the hospital in crisis, such as a new diagnosis with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which might occur over a period of one to two days where you can go from normal to not being able to use your arms and legs,” said Dr. Kalp. “That’s a very abrupt presentation, and we will treat that patient quickly. With myasthenia gravis you can have muscle weakness, which can sometimes affect your diaphragm and your ability to breathe, eat, swallow. So, for those patients we need to be able to turn their condition around really quickly as well.”
Being able to treat these patients locally is an exciting improvement for patient care at NHRMC, which is now part of Novant Health. “This is just another layer on top of services where we are making it easier for people to get the care they need in their community,” said Dr. Kalp. “I came here six years ago to expand neurology services at the hospital, and one of my goals for the neurology program is that if you have a neurological disorder that is complicated that you can stay in Wilmington to get your care and not have to transfer or seek treatment elsewhere.”
Pictured: Ndiagna Sene, RN, a nurse with the American Red Cross, uses an apheresis machine.