Otto Phelps and his mother Erica pose for a portrait in a park near their home on Friday, June 29, 2018. Otto was diagnosed with pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukemia in January 2017. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

As blood donations decline in the summer, a 7-year-old shows why it matters

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As a local blood blank runs low on resources this summer, an Iowa City woman remembers how blood donations helped save her son’s life.

By Katelyn Weisbrod

katelyn-weisbrod@uiowa.edu

Otto Phelps tried really hard to sit still for the photographer, but after a few hundred frames, he could no longer resist the temptation of playing on the playground. The 7-year-old burst of firecracker energy on a scorching summer evening, excited about winning a medal in his baseball tournament last week.

Looking at him now, Otto’s mother, Erica Phelps, said you would never know how sick he was just a few months ago.

In January 2017, Otto was diagnosed with pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare form of cancer that put him in the hospital for two-months straight. For a week, he was completely paralyzed, his mother unsure if he would ever walk again. Though he doesn’t remember much, Otto remembers how hard it was to learn how to walk again.

“My mom would let go of me, and I would just fall straight,” he said. “But she could catch me every time.”

During the worst of it, Otto was receiving a blood transfusion every day.

“In the beginning we went through so much blood and platelets, it was around the clock for weeks,” Phelps said. “I mean weeks. And if we hadn’t had that, we would have lost him.”

Otto Phelps and his mother Erica walk in a park near their home on June 29. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

The summer months bring big challenges for the DeGowin Blood Center, which serves the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and the Stead Family Children’s Hospital, where Otto gets his treatment. The center struggles to fill appointments around the Fourth of July holiday especially, when many regular donors are out of town and much of the student population is gone.

The need right now is biggest for Type-O donors — the type Otto needs — and platelet donors, said Kerry DuBay, the DeGowin recruitment coordinator.

Phelps and her family give regularly when Otto goes in for his now monthly appointments.

“The thing I like about DeGowin is it goes straight to other people in that hospital,” Phelps said. “My blood could go to another kid like him, battling for his life like mine was in the same hospital that mine was.”

Now Otto is in maintenance — he continues to receive chemotherapy treatments at home through a port in his chest every day, but he doesn’t need to go to the hospital beyond his regular appointments unless he runs a fever. He still receives regular blood transfusions, but only every few months.

“[Cancer is] truly affecting so many of our kids … We need blood donations. I don’t know how else to put that,” Phelps said. “It makes me feel lightheaded when I do it, but when you think about how a cancer kid feels, you can deal with it. It’s worth it.”

Upcoming DeGowin blood drives

  • July 9, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Old Capitol Mall Room 2520
  • July 18, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. IMU
  • Walk-ins are accepted but appointments are preferred
  • Call 319-356-2058 or visit uihc.org/degowin to sign up

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