a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA)

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Week: 592.6a 

Guest: Dr. Richard Davey, Chief Medical Ofcr., American Red Cross 

Topic: The need for blood donation 

Host/Producer: Steve Girard 

NEMA: Thanks for joining us...If we can give, we should...blood, that is. If you had an accident, or life saving surgery...you would need blood. And you would get it. But it shouldn’t take that kind of trauma to make you understand the importance of donating. Today, we’re happy to have the Chief Medical Officer of the American Red Cross, Dr. Richard Davey...to talk about how the system works, why it’s so successful, and how you can play an important role in giving the gift of life. Dr. Davey, how large is the demand for donated blood?  

DAVEY: Well, in the United States, we collect about 12 million units of blood a year. The Red Cross collects about 45% of that, or between 5 and 6 million units. So...and almost all of that blood is used..only a small percentage of that is discarded for one of several reasons. But we tranfuse almost all of that material, and matter of fact, much of it is made into components that can help two or three...or four patients from every single donation. 

NEMA: I know from working at radio stations of all sizes that there are times when the blood supply gets very low...and the Red Cross ususally makes an appeal for donations in that particular area. But on the national level, are we at a low point in blood supply and donation?  

DAVEY: We find that in the summer months, especially, that blood donations decrease somewhat...and we, this has happened both locally, as you said, in the Washington area, but also nationally....we’re experiencing a shortage. It’s probably because people are on vacation, they have other things on their minds...schools are closed, and that eliminates a source of donors for us over the summer. So, by the time Labor Day rolls around, out blood supplies are often quite marginal. And we are having a significant problem now in about 25 of our 38 blood regions, in terms of our supply.  

NEMA: Which blood type is most needed?  

DAVEY: Well, we need blood types of all varieties...because patients, of course, who are being transfused have a range of blood types...so, we need blood donors of all types. However, group ‘O’ and especially ‘O negative’ is always in very high demand. That’s because ‘O negative’ blood can be termed ‘universal donor blood’ and can be used in emergency situations, like in a trauma situation before the blood can be properly cross matched for the specific type of the patient who needs it.  

NEMA: Is there a sharing of the blood supply...I mean does blood donated in Taos, New Mexico sometimes end up helping someone in Chicago or Los Angeles?  

DAVEY: That’s a good question...most of the blood that is collected by our regional centers is used locally in that region. But we feel, and I think most of our donors feel that blood is a national resource, and we have a system in the Red Cross to move blood from areas where there might be some excess supply to areas where there is special need. And so, blood can be moved across the country efficiently and used for patients anywhere in the country that have that need.  

NEMA: How long can the donated blood be stored?  

DAVEY: Liquid blood...when we think of blood, most people thing of a bag of red blood cells, and the red blood cells that are stored as liquid material can be stored for 42 days in a refrigerator.  

NEMA: And when the blood is divided into components, does it last longer?  

DAVEY: Well, depends on the component....red blood cells can be stored for 42 days. The platelets in blood, which are small clotting elements that help blood coagulate, can only be stored for 5 days, so that poses special problem in terms of inventory management for the Red Cross. And other components, as you suggest, can be stored for a considerably longer period of time...especially frozen components, that can be stored for a year or longer.  

NEMA: But can whole blood be frozen, too?  

DAVEY: Blood can be frozen...we can freeze red blood cells...and they can be stored for up to 10 years. But it’s rare that we need to actually freeze red cells, it’s an expensive process, and we only really do that when we have a very rare unit that may need to be frozen for future use.  

NEMA: What’s it like to be a blood donor today?  

DAVEY: Being a blood donor requires someone to make an effort to come forward to a blood donation center, and ...these days....ask some probing questions about your health, to make sure that they do pass muster in terms of their health history. Then their blood is taken, and subjected to a series of very highly sensitive tests, looking for different markers of infectious disease. We’ve increased the battery and sensitivity of these tests markedly over the past 10 to 15 years. That testing is, of course, after the donation. The donor himself...the donation process itself only takes about an hour to answer the questions, have the blood drawn, and then have some cookies and orange juice and rest for a bit and chat with your fellow donors.  

NEMA: So, you’re pretty much in and out in an hour?  

DAVEY: And hopefully, even quicker than that, but I think a donor should plan for an hour at the blood center for the whole process to take place.  

NEMA: Are there specific restrictions....people who should know before coming in that they won’t be able to give blood?  

DAVEY: That’s correct...we do require in the Red Cross, and elsewhere nationally, that blood donors be in excellent health, and not have any risk factors that may pose a risk, even if it’s a remote risk, to the recipient of that blood. So, we do require people to be volunteers, and to be healthy. And we’ll ask a series of questions to make sure that that is indeed the case.  

NEMA: And donating blood carries no risk, right?  

DAVEY: That’s correct. Blood donation is a safe procedure, we use sterile equipment...it’s used only once, and then discarded. So, there’s no risk for any infection or any other related problem from donating blood. Occasionally a donor can get woozy...and that is rare, and we have nurses that are trained to manage any minor problem that a donor may have. But most donors find the process to be easy, satisfying, and they have a really good feeling about giving the gift of life to help others.  

NEMA: And most people may feel just a bit lightheaded?  

DAVEY: Very few people have any side effects at all. The body restores the volume of blood that’s taken very quickly, and really...with some orange juice and a bandage on for a few hours, and that’s about it. People really have very few, if any, effects from donating blood.  

NEMA: People hearing this may be spurred to donate soon....how can they find out when the next, nearest blood center is open?  

DAVEY: We do have a national number for the Red Cross...and you’re listeners may want to jot this down. It’s 1-800-GIVE-LIFE, again that’s 1-800-GIVE LIFE, and if a listener would like to consider being a blood donor, or come back if they’ve already been a donor in the past, and don’t know where a local blood center may be, I recommend they call that number. If there isn’t a blood center in your area, call your local hospital blood bank, and they will put you in touch with a blood center near you. It takes a little effort, but it’s an effort that’s well worth taking...because it is a gift that we can give with a minor bit of effort on our part, and it can go a long, long way.  

NEMA: There are many of us who want to donate our blood for our own future use....how does that work?  

DAVEY: Well, we encourage people to give their own blood, when it’s appropriate. Really, the safest blood you can get is your own blood. Blood donation these days and blood transfusion is very, very safe...but the safest blood is your own blood. And when a procedure is scheduled, an elective surgical procedure, where blood transfusion is likely to occur, and the potential donor is capable of donating units of blood for their own use, we certainly encourage that when it’s appropriate...and we will provide that service to patients and physicians who require it.  

NEMA: Blood is always needed....especially now. As the national Red Cross Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Richard Davey told us....type ‘O negative’ blood, the ‘universal donor’ blood is especially helpful. So, get to your local blood donation center...to find it, call 1800-GIVE-LIFE.  

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NEMA: Thanks for joining us for today’s program. If you have any comments or suggestions, contact this station. Or visit our home page at: www.nemahealth.org/...for a look at transcripts of this or past programs, or to find out more about the National Emergency Medicine Association. I’m Steve Girard at The Heart of the Matter.