Red Cross Makes Urgent Plea for Blood Donors

PHOTO Brian Boyle blood transfusions
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Brian Boyle never gave much thought to donating blood until a horrific accident nearly seven years ago.

"One month after my high school graduation, I was coming home from swim practice when I had a near- fatal car accident with a dump truck," said Boyle. "My heart was ripped across my chest, my lungs collapsed, my organs were damaged, I broke my clavicle and I lost 60 percent of my blood."

Boyle, now 24, was in a medically-induced coma for two months and among other life-saving procedures, had 36 blood transfusions and 13 plasma treatments.

He said he could not have survived without blood transfusions, which is why he now encourages people to get out and donate.

The cold weather months are an especially vital time to push for donations, because the number of donors tends to decrease during the winter. This winter has brought especially brutal weather across the country, and according to the American Red Cross, the nationwide blood supply is at its lowest January levels in the last 10 years. The agency is trying to get the word out that blood is urgently needed.

"When severe weather disrupts [the balance between supply and demand], the Red Cross puts out a call to potential blood donors across the country to give blood as soon as possible and help make up the deficit," Dr. Richard Benjamin, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, said in a press release.

The Red Cross says someone needs a blood transfusion every two seconds in the U.S. because of injuries, surgery and treatments for diseases like cancer and sickle cell anemia. The organization says it needs all blood types, especially type O, and encourages everyone at least 17 years old in overall good health to see if they are eligible to donate.

Blood and blood components, like platelets, are extremely perishable and need to be replenished constantly.

"Platelets have a shelf life of only five days, and regular bood has a shelf life of 6 weeks," said Dr. Ronald Sacher, director of the Hoxworth Blood Center at the University of Cincinnati.

Sacher says the Hoxworth's supply is about 520 units below what it should be.

Donate Blood: A Winter's Tale

"We need about 350 units a day and last week, we collected barely half of that," he said.

Snowstorms have besieged the midwestern United States and other parts of the country, making it difficult to hold blood drives and to encourage people to get out and donate.

"This is a season where individuals are affected by winter-related illnesses, so that always has an effect, and if you add successive snow storms, people are not able to get out and donate," Sacher added.

Holiday obligations also tend to take their toll on the number of blood donations, and combined with the bad weather and the increased number of elective surgeries that happen in January, experts say there's definitely a need.

The Red Cross says more than 14,000 donations have been cancelled by the weather, and Sacher says numerous community blood drives near Hoxworth had to be cancelled as well.

Some Centers Have Adequate Supplies

While many centers do have shortages, others not as affected by the weather have a decent supply right now.

Jim MacPherson, the chief executive officer of America's Blood Centers, an alliance of 75 community-based blood centers around the country, said only a handful of the organization's members have an urgent need for blood.

"Right now, most have about a 4-day supply," said MacPherson. "We consider a 2- to 3-day supply to be safe until we absolutely have to go out and get more."

MacPherson said when the supply gets down to about 2 days worth of blood, centers will start previous donors to encourage them to donate. After that, centers will reach out to community organizations and ask them to hold blood drives and if there's still a need, will try to get blood from other centers that may have a surplus.

The media is often a last resort, because publicity tends to attract prior donors, who will then be unable to give blood for a while. Centers, he said, hope to reach out to new donors.

"The fact that the Red Cross has reached out to the media means they have a very urgent need," he said.

The New York Blood Center, which provides blood to more than 200 hospitals and serves more than 20 million people, says despite the area's brutal winter, supplies are adequate.

Rob Purvis, the vice president of the New York Blood Center, says one advantage regional blood centers have over national organizations like the American Red Cross is a stronger connection with donors.

"Our donors are connected with our hospitals in a way," he said. "When you're distributing on a national basis sometimes, that connection doesn't happen as freely."

Only Small Percentage of Eligible Donors Give Blood

Another issue that inhibits blood supply is that only about 30 percent of the population is eligible to donate blood, and of those, only about 5 percent actually do.

"The low eligibility is mostly related to illness-related exclusions and travel to areas where there are concerns about infections," said Sacher.

Most donors are also older adults, which is why Sacher said Hoxworth Blood Center, the center he directs, often reaches out to students at the center's affiliated University of Cincinnati.

These new donors are exactly the ones Brian Boyle wants to encourage to get out and donate. He works with the Red Cross to get the message out.

"By giving just a little bit of your time, you can give somebody like me a lifetime," he said.

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