Jun 14, 2021
At times, life depends on the generosity of others. If you are in a serious accident or undergoing cancer treatment, your life could be saved by the kindness of a volunteer who donated blood. Similarly, new drugs and treatments come to market because of the volunteers who participate in clinical trials.
Today on World Blood Donor Day, I want to focus on blood donation. This year’s slogan is “give blood and keep the world beating.” We cannot take for granted a steady supply of safe blood. As a global community, we have a shared responsibility to do what we can to save lives and improve health.
Superheroes fight for those less able. Blood donor volunteers do the same – they just don’t wear a cape.
Steady blood supplies are needed for all kinds of purposes – for urgent care like trauma or burns, surgeries and transplants, and for those with illnesses such as cancer. Blood can’t be manufactured, so it is up to us to keep it flowing for each other.
Rightly so, there are strict eligibility criteria that protect you as a donor and minimize the risk of unsuitable blood being collected. It stands to reason, then, that only a portion of the population can give blood.
Consider that in the US, someone needs blood every two seconds, yet only 3% of the eligible population donate blood, according to the American Red Cross. The situation in the UK is similar with single-digit participation from those eligible, yet the NHS estimates that it needs 400 new donors per day to meet demand.
But let’s face it – you are giving up one of the 10 blood units in your body when you donate. And it is likely for a stranger who you will never meet. This is why we need to inspire and motivate each other to bleed for one another.
I’m fortunate to have two people in my life that inspire me to schedule that next appointment. They represent two very different types of donations, so their life-saving effects are also different.
My father is O negative, which is in the highest demand for donations. This blood type is known as the “universal donor” or “first responder” because everyone can receive it, which is especially critical in trauma situations where the blood type is not known. Yet, it is rare and occurs in roughly 3% of the world’s population.
To maximize his donation, my father takes advantage of what the American Red Cross calls a “Power Red” donation. A machine separates and collects red blood cells and returns the remaining blood components back into his body. The advantage is that my father donates double the amount of blood at one time and more units than he could in a year compared with the traditional whole blood donation process.
My dad started donating in his late teens because of my maternal grandfather, who had to stop giving blood once he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother, a petite lady, tried but couldn’t donate in her father’s place because she didn’t meet the weight requirements. So, my dad donated, and he’s given blood ever since.
He’s quite a humble guy, so when I asked him for this blog why he does it, he shrugged and said, “It’s a way to give back. I give because I can.”
Tom, the father of my dearest, lifelong friend Tracy, also started giving blood in his teen years. One day while donating, he noticed a different kind of collection underway for another man in the clinic. Inquiring about it, Tom learned that this person was donating platelets.
Platelets are necessary to form clots and stop bleeding. Donations are especially needed for people undergoing chemotherapy treatments. The donation process is similar to the Power Red concept, except the platelets are separated and collected and the red blood cells returned back to the donor. This means you can give a lot more frequently, up to 24 times a year. Unlike whole blood, platelets have a very short shelf life and must be used within a few days of collection.
It happens that Tom is B positive, which is one of the blood types suitable for platelet donation. Tom decided to switch to giving platelets and has been donating ever since. He visits Children’s Hospital in Boston for his donations. Considering one donation of platelets can help up to 12 kids, Tom’s generosity has meant a lot to many families and kids with cancer.
So far in his life, Tom has donated 435 pints of platelets – that is in addition to the gallons of blood he donated before he made the switch. Unlike my father who will never know who he helped, Tom sees the kids in hospital being treated for cancer. He doesn’t know for sure which of the kids he’s helped, but seeing their grinning faces is enough for him.
In a twist of fate, Tom has gone from helping cancer patients to being one himself after he was diagnosed last year with prostate cancer. Fortunately, it was caught early and was treatable, but it has meant that he had to pause donations. “I’m waiting. Hopefully a year from my last treatment, I’ll be able to give again,” Tom said. “I hope so. I miss it. I miss the people. And I miss seeing the kids.”
I started donating in the US when I was a teenager. I’m not sure exactly, but over the years I probably donated at least a couple of gallons. Being A positive, I also donated platelets a few times, inspired by Tom. However, I stick with whole blood donations these days.
After all of these years, I still look away and say to the nurse, “Don’t tell me before you put the needle in.” I’ve gotten good at tricks to make the blood flow quickly – though in a race my father will always beat me! Key tips are drinking a lot of water in advance and moving your limbs throughout the donation to keep your blood pressure up. The donation takes only about 10 minutes. The longest part is the paperwork and preparation to make sure you are eligible and healthy to donate.
I didn’t realize until I started working on this blog that I’m actually the third generation to give blood – my grandfather, my father and me. And it’s not that I was “expected” to give blood – it’s just something I felt I needed to do if I could. A couple of times I’ve been rejected due to low iron levels, but for as long as I can, I will donate.
On this World Blood Donor Day, we need to encourage everyone who can to volunteer. I’m hopeful that the mainstream awareness of medical volunteers with the pandemic – both for people to participate in clinical trials and donate plasma – will increase more diverse groups of volunteers for both research and blood donation. I would love to see 100% of eligible people regularly donate because as my father put it “If people don’t give blood, we are in a world of hurt.”