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How your blood can save lives

By Donna Foster, MLS (ASCP)

Our community is always in need of blood donations. While large-scale accidents and natural disasters can lead to an uptick in valuable donations, it is actually regular donors who ensure hospitals have a consistent supply of blood for victims of car crashes and surgery patients. Regular donors respond when local blood banks experience an all-too-common shortage.

If it’s been a while since you’ve donated blood, or if you’ve considered donating but never actually made an appointment, today is a great time to change that by scheduling with the American Red Cross or Bloodworks Northwest. Eligibility rules continue to be updated, so if you were deferred before, you might be able to give now.

One unit, three people

Every pint of blood you give has the potential to save the lives of three people. As soon as your blood is drawn, trained technicians begin processing it. In most cases, technicians place the collection bag (referred to as a “unit”) in a centrifuge to separate the red blood cell portion from the liquid plasma portion. Platelets or white blood cells may also be removed using additional special processing. While four different products can be isolated from one unit of blood, each pint usually produces two or three individual products. Each blood product meets a different medical need. For example:

  • Platelets: Help patients who are suffering from clotting disorders
  • Plasma: Aids burn victims
  • Red blood cells: Help anemic patients and those who have experienced significant blood loss
  • White blood cells: Treat patients who have antibiotic-resistant infections or who are undergoing chemotherapy.

In addition to collecting blood for donation, phlebotomists will also collect several tubes for testing. All blood is routinely tested for communicable diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis, as well as atypical antibodies that could adversely affect the person receiving the blood. Today’s testing is unequivocally the best it’s ever been. If you ever need to receive a unit of blood, you can rest assured that it’s very, very safe. The testing and processing are expensive, however, which is why a patient must be charged for blood products even though the donation was from a volunteer donor. Both the Red Cross and Bloodworks are nonprofit organizations and charge only what is necessary to cover their expenses.

After the blood is tested it is sent to an area hospital. In all, it can take 24 to 72 hours from the time of donation to the time it’s ready to be transfused into a patient. Red blood cells, the most commonly used product, have a shelf life of just 42 days, and platelets only five days. Hospitals manage these products using a “first in, first out” process so that expiration is kept to a minimum.

Because of the time and testing involved, it’s impractical to donate a unit of blood with the expectation that it will be transfused directly into a friend or loved one. However, friends and family members of patients who are using blood can support their loved one and help replenish the blood supply by donating.

Special donors

Platelet-only (“apheresis”) donations are critically needed, so much so that we call them “gold donations.” During an apheresis donation, blood is removed from your arm and is immediately processed so platelets can be removed. The remainder of the blood (red cells and plasma) is then returned through your arm. All of this happens simultaneously.

O-negative blood donors are also particularly needed. O-negative blood is the universal blood type, which means that when there’s an emergency and there’s not enough time to test someone’s blood type, O-negative can safely be used. Just seven percent of the population has O-negative blood, making these donors extremely important.

If you don’t know your blood type, talk to your doctor and insurance company about ABO testing so you can find out. Blood type is genetically inherited and one more thing that makes you unique. It’s also an important piece of health information.

However, no matter what type of blood you have, or what type of donation you choose, your decision to give can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Few gifts in this world cost as little but mean as much as a unit of blood. I hope you’ll consider donating.

Donna Foster is a medical laboratory scientist and regular blood donor. She worked for the American Red Cross Pacific NW Blood Services for 23 years prior to joining Vancouver Clinic.