CHICAGO – Every day, Wanda Volchko, a single mother of two, fights off the side effects of lupus. She’s also a survivor of strokes and leukemia, making her dependent on monthly immune-boosting infusions that have to be diluted with saline because she’s extremely sensitive to some treatments.
But the last time she went for her infusions, the Milwaukee resident was told the hospital was out of saline, the fluid in IV bags.
"I was just really shocked when they're just like 'Oh, we don't have a saline bag' and the nurse told me, really nervously, 'Oh, I hope you don't have a reaction,’” Volchko said.
Like so many other Americans, Volchko was stunned to learn the majority of America’s saline manufacturing plants are on the island of Puerto Rico and that Hurricane Maria knocked them offline, creating a nationwide shortage.
"People think 'Well, the hurricane happened in Puerto Rico',” Volchko said. “But what people don't realize is it affects people here.”
The shortage might not seem that urgent, but medical professionals and doctors say IV fluid is one of the first things they reach for to keep people alive.
"It’s the very first thing that we give to the patients when they come in from a gunshot or a motor vehicle accident," said Raquel Prendkowski, director of the emergency department at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Chicago. "They've had a loss of blood and we immediately have to bulk it back up and give them the fluids," she said.
The shortage has resulted in hospitals and clinics being forced to decide which patients get bags and it also means medical professionals and nurses have to spend critical time standing over a patient for up to 30 minutes, manually injecting fluids.
Tonya Kubo of Merced, Calif. is anemic and has to get routine infusions to sustain her stamina and health. She said just before Christmas, the clinic she goes to called her to say it wasn’t sure they would have saline for her.
“They were at a point where they had to count their bags because the center I go to mostly deals with cancer patients and anemia patients," Kubo said. "So if they are giving me iron, and they run out of bags, they are not going to be able to give chemo,” she said.
The California clinic tells Fox News it has enough saline to last until February. It’s not clear what will happen if more supplies don’t arrive before then.
Fortunately, one of the largest manufacturers of saline bags ─ Baxter ─ has had power restored to its three Puerto Rico plants, the FDA reports. However, it’s not clear when production will be fully restored.
Until then, some hospitals and clinics are forced to deal with the burden, and patients like Volchko and Kubo are left feeling guilty, wondering if receiving a bag will be critical to another patient’s life.
"I've been there, I've been that cancer patient in the chair who's needed it,” Volchko said. “And it’s so not fair to them.”