During a heat wave in the summer of 2004, a patient at the Arizona Heart Institute in Phoenix went to Grayson Wheatley, a cardiovascular surgeon there, in need of heart surgery.
Wheatley had already performed a similar open-heart procedure earlier that morning, but when it came time to perform the bypass surgery in the afternoon, he just couldn't do it.
The problem wasn't with Wheatley or the patient. Rather, a severe blood shortage, caused in part by a heat wave that had hit the region, meant that the hospital's blood supply was very low, Wheatley said. If there were complications, there was no way to guarantee that enough blood would be available to complete the procedure.
"You have to psych yourself up to get heart surgery, so it was an emotional letdown [for the patient] to have to wait," Wheatley said.
Once again this year a heat wave is contributing to severe blood shortages in the West, where the rising mercury has led to low donor turnout and even the cancellation of some blood drives at facilities ill equipped to handle the high temperatures.
Though doctors and blood-bank representatives said they have yet to hear of any surgeries postponed yet this summer, there are fears that the postponements, which were relatively widespread during the summer of 2004, may occur before the summer is up. If shortages are severe enough, they could threaten the treatment of emergency-care patients as well.
If they are postponed even a few days because of a blood shortage, the impact can be "fairly traumatic for the patients," according to Neil Blumberg, the director of transfusion medicine and the blood bank at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "It's not minor surgery. These are usually big operations, not immediately life-saving … where nobody likes to wait for long periods."
The Southern California Red Cross made a public appeal for blood donations Monday after the severe heat caused it to cancel four separate drives last week at sites whose cooling systems could not lower temperatures enough to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for donors. Monday, the region had only a 1.5-day supply of blood, including less than three hours of Type O-negative blood, according to Cliff Numark, the director of donor recruitment for the Red Cross in Southern California.
The Arizona Red Cross made a similar public appeal for donors today after reporting severely low blood supplies, including only three hours' worth of Type O-negative blood and six hours of Type O-positive blood. The Red Cross' optimal supply size is approximately five days' worth of blood.
Last week that branch was forced to cancel a blood drive after one of its mobile units never made it to a blood-drive site because the van could not cool down to a sufficiently low temperature to ensure adequate comfort for donors and staff.
"Our blood supply is dangerously low," said Debra Deininger, the Arizona Red Cross' communications manager. At the current levels, "a single emergency could exhaust a hospital's supply of O-negative blood," she said.
Numark said that the donor sites in California where drives were cancelled are normally able to handle the summer weather, but that the unexpectedly high temperatures this year have proved to be too much for their existing cooling systems. In light of the high number of cancellations, he said that the Red Cross is currently reassessing which of its Southern California sites can sustain the current temperatures.