It’s In Your Blood
Make Giving the Gift of Life a Habit
I’ll never forget the day I was sent to cover a blood drive for the first time when I was working as a reporter in Sarasota. I had never given blood before. I always made what I thought were good excuses: “I’m afraid of needles,” “It’s gross,” “The sight of blood makes me sick.” Sound familiar? That day when I was at the bloodmobile, I looked around and saw all these good people with rolled-up shirtsleeves.
I couldn’t help but think, “How can I possibly do a story on the importance of giving blood and not donate myself?” So, I overcame my fears that day and joined a society of people who know what noted anthropologist Margaret Mead was talking about when she once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I just received my “Gallon Club Donor” award from the Southeastern Community Blood Center. I don’t give as much as I could, but I try to give regularly. Perhaps you’ve even seen me giving blood live on WCTV. Twice in the past few years, I’ve done a live shot to prove that needles and blood bags aren’t so bad. I like to think of it as “liquid love.”
I hope by the time you’re finished reading this story, I’ve convinced you to join me in my quest to save lives. We’re going to follow the blood bag so you can truly understand why this liquid of life is so precious.
Let me start by sharing a startling fact: Every two seconds someone needs blood. Each day, hundreds of patients within the Tallahassee community depend on blood donors for the ultimate life-saving gift. Yet, less than 10 percent of the U.S. population eligible to donate blood does so annually.
Jeanne Dariotis, CEO of the Southeastern Community Blood Center, says donors are the only source for blood and blood components. “There is no artificial source or substitute,” she explains. “Blood is actually a living organism that provides oxygen-carrying capacity to the body. The ‘artificial blood’ that is so often talked about has never become a true substitute. Its use is very limited — primarily severe trauma resuscitation — and it is short lived in the human body.”
She continues: “Blood itself is only good for 42 days. It takes over 24 hours between the time a unit of blood is donated and when it can be available in a hospital for a patient. To keep the supply adequate, donors are needed every day. No one wants to think they need blood, but you would not want to drive the streets or go to the hospital for surgery if you thought there was not enough blood on the shelf when you or your loved ones needed it. It is estimated that 30 percent of what happens in hospitals depends on having blood available.”
With that in mind, let’s start from the moment a potential blood donor walks into a blood center. The entire donation process generally takes an hour or less of the donor’s time, with the actual blood donation lasting about 10 minutes. Prospective donors first complete a questionnaire and screening interview. (Some of the questions are very personal, but important in helping to determine how your health history affects your ability to donate.) The next step involves a brief examination of blood pressure, pulse and temperature, along with an anemia test. If the medical requirements are met, a unit of blood (about one pint) is drawn from the donor. Afterwards, donors are encouraged to rest and drink fluids before they leave.
Dr. Stephen Sgan, SCBC’s medical director, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what happens next: “A number of laboratory tests are performed on the donated blood for various infections, including HIV, hepatitis B and C, West Nile virus, syphilis, human T-cell lymphotrophic virus (HTLV) and Chagas’ disease,” explains Sgan. “Donors who have abnormal test results are notified in writing, and occasionally in person, of the test results, their clinical significance and whether they will be deferred from donating for a certain period of time or permanently. Our platelet products are also tested for bacteria. The initial screening tests that we utilize are designed to be exquisitely sensitive in order to protect the blood supply from any of these infectious agents. If any test is positive, the blood unit is not used.”
After that, the donated blood undergoes testing that helps the blood center determine compatibility of the donated blood with the blood of a recipient. This compatibility testing includes determining the donor’s blood group (A, B, AB or O) and type (Rh negative or positive) as well as testing for antibodies (proteins made by the body’s immune system) to red and white blood cells that might cause an incompatibility or other adverse reaction in a blood recipient.
Potential donors should never donate blood just to get tested if they are concerned that they might have been exposed to HIV or any other infection; they should go to the health department or their personal physician.
Because time is critical, a blood bag is quickly processed once the testing phase is complete. SCBC Director of Laboratory Services Debbie Nennstiel explains what happens next. “Once the unit of blood is collected, it needs to be processed within eight hours,” says Debbie. “A unit undergoes processing by means of centrifugation. Centrifugation is performed at different RPMs (rotation speeds) and time to allow the different cells in the unit of blood to separate from each other (due to the specific gravity of each type of cell). This process enables us to make three products — a platelet, plasma and red blood cell unit — from each blood donation. The red blood cell unit has a shelf life of 42 days and is stored at refrigerated temperatures (1–6 C), the plasma unit has a one-year shelf life and is stored at minus 20 C, and the platelets have a shelf life of five days and are stored at room temperature (20–24 C). The hospital sends a request to us for the various blood component needs that they have and we package the products and distribute to them on a daily basis.”
One area hospital, Capital Regional Medical Center, gives us a snapshot of how much blood it uses. In 2008, it transfused more than 6,500 units of packed red blood cells, 1,100 units of fresh frozen plasma and 267 units of platelets. And transfusions in 2009 are expected to be higher than 2008. All blood at Capital Regional Medical Center is supplied by Southeastern Community Blood Center, which collects from donors in North Florida and South Georgia. The hospital’s CEO, Bud Wethington, says sometimes when local supplies are low or special types are needed, blood is shipped in from other parts of the country. He says the hospital maintains sufficient blood inventory on site to meet expected demand, and this inventory is replenished daily from the SCBC center.
“Lives are saved every day because of blood donation,” says Wethington. “But the ones that really catch your attention are severe trauma victims — traffic accidents, mostly — who would not be alive today without massive blood replacement. But there are also countless patients whose cancer, bleeding problems or extensive surgery make blood donations a lifesaver for them, as well.”
This is a subject Wethington knows something about. A few years ago his son had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. During the following days, his son received four units of blood. Luckily, his hospital had just completed a blood drive and the additional blood his son needed was available, saving his life and leading to a full recovery.
Tallahassee Memorial Hospital also sees blood as a necessary lifeline. According to Mark O’Bryant, president and CEO of Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, “having access to a quality and adequate blood supply is critical to TMH and the patients we serve. As the area’s only designated provisional Trauma Center, we admit more than 1,100 trauma patients per year and a single trauma patient can require multiple units of blood. As TMH performs almost 20,000 surgical procedures per year, we rely heavily on a constant resource of blood products.”
Since whole blood donations last a mere 42 days, SCBC relies on donors to help replenish the blood supply by giving blood regularly. Blood contributions are especially important during the summer and holiday months when blood shortages frequently occur.
Nineteen-year-old FSU student Tracy Leutkmeyer went to bed one night and never woke up in May 2007 because of a heart condition. Her sorority sisters in Alpha Delta Pi held a blood drive on campus in her honor. Her sorority sister, Elizabeth Moore, recalls how good came from bad. “The drive was a tremendous success,” she says. “An overwhelming number of people came out and donated. SCBC says it was one of the largest campus blood drives they had ever had. Dozens and dozens of people turned out. Blood donation is a very personal gift that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort.”
Perhaps you won’t know until you or someone you love needs blood just how important the act of donating really is. But my hope is that we honor the gift of life by understanding that it is a privilege and a responsibility to give something back. You might say that the act of giving “is in your blood.”
Contributing writer Triston V. Sanders is an executive producer and news anchor for WCTV. Watch her televised medical segment, “Health Matters,” weekday mornings on “The Good Morning Show” on WCTV.