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Helping Save Children Is in Their Blood

Jesse Noriega doesn’t talk about these things much, not even with his wife of 43 years, Liz. Together, they’ve had eight babies. One had to have his blood completely transfused so that he might live.

Two others, Dana and Jennifer, died in the hospital shortly after birth. Their mother says they never had a chance.

“Without this program, everyone would have to go through the same ordeal,” Jesse Noriega says.

“The program” makes this sound a little complicated. It is not, although it is certainly involved. It has to do with giving of yourself, because you can and because it will help somebody else.

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Liz Noriega’s blood is Rh negative and her husband’s is not. That means that after the birth of their first child, Liz’s body began developing antibodies to fight the intruder with the alien blood. Except the intruder was the baby in her womb.

Back when Liz was getting pregnant, being Rh negative meant that you rolled the dice. Sometimes--witness the Noriegas’ five healthy adult children--you were very lucky. Other times, you lost.

Only the reality was never as simple as that might sound.

Today there is a drug that can safely eliminate Rh incompatibility, the ordeal that has so influenced the Noriegas’ lives.

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Pregnant women with Rh negative blood receive it before and after birth if the father of their child has Rh positive blood. (Nationally, about 15% of the population do not have the Rh factor in their blood).

The drug is so common--RhoGAM is the trade name widely known today--that one tends to forget that it hasn’t always been around, that it doesn’t grow on trees.

Its manufacture depends directly on women such as Liz, who is healthy, has never received RhoGAM, and is unable to have any more children herself. So she donates her plasma, full of Rh antibodies, so that other mothers’ babies may live.

Such women are much in demand. But they are in very short supply.

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“I like to be able to say to myself that some babies are healthy because I gave some of my time,” Liz says. She has been donating her plasma--expenses are paid by the lab--for 12 years, two times a week. She is 62.

“I’ve found that the caliber of women who become donors is kind of special. They have this internal commitment to doing this.”

Reasons for giving, however, are diverse. Claudia Martin has been donating her Rh-negative plasma on and off for 20 years. She is 52, a mother of three. All of her children were born healthy, something of a medical fluke.

She donates, she says, because it is the right thing to do. By the time she drives from Laguna Niguel, where she designs window treatments at her home, to the laboratory in Orange, she has exhausted two afternoons a week.

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“The ladies who have the antibodies are a vanishing breed,” she says. “I live a very busy life and this takes time. But it makes you feel good.”

The embodiment of Sue Lauterjung’s commitment to giving is in front of her now, in the living room of the Noriegas’ Mission Viejo home. Robin Lauterjung, 5, is eyeing a tray of cookies like any other inquisitive child. Sue and her husband call Robin their miracle from God.

“The Lord placed his hand on us and gave us this child,” she says. “She is going to be someone and do something wonderful, because she was spared.”

After having a complete blood transfusion two days after birth, Robin is today a healthy child.

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Sue, 44, is the mother of two other children, 18 and 13 years old. She was given RhoGAM, but the dosage apparently did not take. Before becoming pregnant with Robin, she and her husband underwent genetic counseling to assess the risk.

“We knew going in that we were looking at brain, liver, heart damage, possibly death,” she says. “My doctor later confided in me that he thought Robin was a miracle too. He told me that when he found out I was pregnant he thought I didn’t have ‘a snowball’s chance in hell of having a live baby.’ ”

So now Sue, too, is giving back.

“My husband and I don’t have much money at all,” she says. “And we like causes. This is something really special that I can do for other people, and I am very anti-abortion. I like the idea that this saves babies.”

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Jesse Noriega is thinking back now, to the time when his children never had a chance. The hurt transcended words.

“There’s got to be somebody who has to come up with an answer for this,” he told himself then.

Now there is somebody, of course. Lots of somebodies, working as a group, taking the time to do some good.

There is always a need for more.

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Dianne Klein’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.


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