Hey buddy, can you spare a unit of blood?

Red Cross sends out an urgent request for blood donations in the metro region
by: Patrick Sherman, Thelma Eason receives a blood transfusion at Providence Milwaukie Hospital recently. Regular transfusions are the only available treatment for her condition.

With regional blood supplies dwindling, the Red Cross has issued an urgent request for donations. Reserves of all negative antigen blood types, which are the most useful for transfusions, have diminished to a half-day supply.

'In the summertime, we often see a decline in blood supplies,' said Clare Matthias, a communications specialist with American Red Cross Pacific Northwest Regional Blood Services. 'We're not exactly sure why, but this year it's been especially difficult to maintain our supply, and it's reaching fairly critical levels.'

The typical summer dip in donations occurs as people head off for vacations and students - who provide 15 to 20 percent of the overall supply through high school and college blood drives - are away.

'This is definitely worse than previous summers,' Matthias said. 'A couple of weeks ago, when we had those triple-digit temperatures, we took a really big hit.'

Donors must supply 5,000 units of blood a week to maintain an adequate supply throughout Oregon, Washington and southern Alaska, the area served by Pacific Northwest Regional Blood Services.

'One unit is what one person can give each time they donate blood,' said Matthias. 'Donors are eligible to give blood every 56 days, and about 60 percent of the total American population is eligible to give blood, but only about five percent do.'

Area hospitals, which rely on the Red Cross for their supply of blood, have yet to be impacted by the shortage, but the strain on the system is showing.

'So far, we haven't had to cancel any surgeries,' said Terry Cox, a medical technologist at Providence Milwaukie Hospital. 'It hasn't affected us too much, except that we keep getting calls for O-negative blood. Right now they are trying to manage the shortage by transferring supplies from one hospital to another.'

The demand for O-negative blood always exceeds supply, according to Cox. Occurring in just seven percent of the U.S. population, O-negative blood can be given safely to a person with any other blood type.

This makes it especially useful in emergencies, when an accident victim arrives at a hospital requiring an immediate transfusion, because the test to determine blood type can require half an hour or longer to complete.

The only treatment

Blood transfusions are also essential for other types of patients, from premature babies to patients suffering from diseases that afflict their own blood.

'This is the only treatment for the condition that I have - myelofibrosis,' said Thelma Eason, settling in at Providence Milwaukie for a six-hour transfusion. 'It's a genetic condition. My younger brother had it. He died at 67, and he was very healthy - a swimmer.

'When it started out, he was tired all the time. He needed a gall bladder operation, and when they checked his blood, they said there was no way they could do the operation.'

According to Matthias, the process of donating blood takes about one hour, with only about 10 minutes of that time being taken up with the actual donation.

'In general, it doesn't hurt,' she said. 'We have highly trained phlebotomists who work with our donors to make it as painless as possible.'

After it is drawn, each unit of blood goes through an extensive battery of tests to ensure that it is free of disease and contamination, then it is made available to hospitals throughout the region.

'Blood has a shelf-life of 42 days,' said Matthias. 'It could end up being used right next door, or it could be shipped someplace else in the region.'

If supplies drop much further, the Pacific Northwest will have to rely on other regions to make up for the shortfall, Matthias said.

'That's when the national inventory management system kicks in,' she said. 'Blood will have to be rushed in, but that takes time, and it cuts into their inventory. It's important that we work with our own donors so that we're pulling our own weight.'

She added, 'Blood can't be made - it can only come from donors. It's a gift that anyone, rich or poor, can give.'