"It’s scary how low we are."
That’s what I remember the American Red Cross worker saying to me last Saturday as he attached a Band-Aid to my arm after I had given blood. He was talking about his organization’s emergency supply.
The Red Cross serves 3,000 hospitals nationwide. To meet that demand, it must collect 17,000 pints of blood every day – one pint per donor. That becomes harder during the summer months, according to Laurie Nehring, communications manager for biomedical services for the Greater Ozarks Region. That’s when college and high school students, who make up 20 percent of all donors, are traveling or uprooted.
June was unusually bad. Donations nationwide sank by 50,000 from the month before. Things got a little worrisome before the Red Cross sent out an urgent media appeal. It didn’t get to the point where surgeries had to be postponed, but it got close.
"We were just barely meeting the needs that we had. … We didn’t have any cushion, no reserve," Nehring said. "We were just keeping up."
Making the task more difficult is the fact that only 38 percent of Americans are eligible to donate. You must be at least 16 years old and weigh at least 110 pounds. There’s a list of diseases you can’t have had, places you can’t have been, activities you can’t have done, and medications you can’t be taking.
But the real problem is that only 8 percent of that 38 percent actually donates – not eight percent of all Americans, but eight percent of those eligible. That’s in spite of the fact that 100 percent of us will receive blood if we need it.
If you have never given blood, here’s what it’s like. You can show up unannounced or, to avoid waiting, make an appointment. You’re given reading material that lists the different conditions that would make you ineligible. Then a Red Cross worker asks you to answer questions on a computer about your health and history. He or she leaves you alone to do this. If you don’t like the questions, you can leave.
Afterward, the Red Cross worker checks your blood pressure and temperature, and then, to measure your iron, pricks your finger. That hurts a little. Then you’re led to a reclining chair, given a ball to squeeze, and the blood is drawn. You would think that would hurt, but the Red Cross uses a special needle that creates a warm, tingly feeling as it’s inserted.
That last part wasn’t true, unfortunately. It’s a needle, so it hurts for a few seconds whether you stare at what’s happening or try the equally ineffective method of looking away and pretending it’s not happening.
Afterwards you’re given a thank you, sometimes a t-shirt, and a drink and a snack. You don’t get paid, and you are not more likely later to receive blood than someone who has never donated. You do get the knowledge that your one pint of blood could be used to help as many as three people – someone who needs your red blood cells, someone who needs your white blood cells, and someone who needs your platelets.
Many years ago, my co-worker and I gave blood while serving as relief workers amongst the Somali people in northern Kenya. An anemic baby was about to die, but her own people would not help her because they did not believe in giving blood. It was against their religion. It wasn’t against ours.
Still, donating blood is not for everybody. Some of us don’t tolerate it well. Some of us simply cannot stand needles or the sight of blood. For the rest, the Red Cross needs 17,000 of us to donate every day, 365 days a year, and especially right now. For more information, call 1-800-RED-CROSS (733-2767), or go to www.redcross.org.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.