January was not a productive month for blood donations, according to the American Red Cross. The humanitarian organization reported that snow storms and freezing temperatures in parts of the United States, coupled with the 35-day government shutdown, resulted in the cancellation of more than 16,000 scheduled blood and platelet donations.
“A lot of our blood drives are done through our state and federal partners,” Veronica Garcia Davalos, executive director for the Greater Long Beach Chapter of the American Red Cross, told the Business Journal. These drives, also hosted by local and military agencies, were canceled across the country due to furloughed government staff.
The Red Cross tries to maintain a blood supply to last the nation for at least five days, Davalos explained, but the setbacks in January have diminished that supply to about three days. The director and her organization are requesting Americans sign up to donate as soon as they can. “We never want to be caught in that situation, where we can’t do what we need to do locally,” she said. “We want everyone to have the blood they need to be helped.”
A common misconception is that any blood given can be shelved for later use, Davalos said. In fact, donated blood has an expiration date.
“Red cells, generally speaking, can only be kept for about 42 days,” Dr. Emanuel Ferro, the medical director for clinical pathology and the blood bank at both MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center and Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach, told the Business Journal. “Platelets, which are also one of the products we transfuse . . . only have a shelf life of about five days.”
Ferro went on to explain that donated blood may be separated into several components or “products” to serve different medical needs. A “whole blood” donation, which lasts up to 35 days, includes red cells, white cells, platelets and plasma, and is commonly used in surgery. Red cells are used to treat trauma patients or those with anemia, while platelets are often used in the oncology department.
Cancer patients at Long Beach Memorial are frequently in need of blood products, Ferro said, because some cancer-fighting drugs can injure bone marrow and impair patients’ ability to make their own blood. “They depend on the blood of donors to get them through the treatment,” he said.
Both Ferro and Davalos emphasized that the need for blood donations is constant, especially during the holidays. “During the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, we collected 27,000 fewer donations than we typically collect,” American Red Cross Communications Manager Christine Welch said. Holiday travel and shopping are major factors, she explained, as is the cold and flu season.
Disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, impede donations in particular regions of the U.S., Davalos said. This requires a responsive network of blood donation and delivery across the country. “Every day, the Red Cross must collect more than 2,500 platelet and about 13,000 blood donations for patients at about 2,500 hospitals nationwide,” Welch said.
Though Southern California does not experience extreme shifts in weather like those in other states, Welch said the region follows the national trend of reduced donations in wintertime. For those in the Golden State who are able to donate, she added, the Red Cross welcomes them throughout the year. For the So Cal region, Welch said the organization aims to collect about 700 blood donations every single day, with blood collected at the Long Beach Red Cross serving more than 120 hospitals in the region alone.
Long Beach Memorial Medical Center contracts with the San Diego Blood Bank for most of its blood, according to Ferro, and supplements that with its in-house blood donation center. The hospital’s trauma center, which cares for patients suffering from injuries related to car accidents and violent assaults, has a high priority for these donations. “We get all kinds of people that come in who are in dire need of blood, and they would die without it,” Ferro said.
Donated blood is also used in obstetrics and gynecology, he added. “A fair number of mothers that deliver . . . sometimes will have a bad hemorrhagic event that will have to be treated with blood products,” he explained.
Reggie Harrison, director of the Long Beach Department of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications, told the Business Journal that a healthy blood supply would be essential if an earthquake or tsunami struck the city. “Having a baseline level of blood available at all times for the public, just for the general accidents that occur, is extremely important,” he said. “That need gets ratcheted up 10 times more in a major emergency or disaster.”
Head injuries, either from people falling or being struck by debris, are common in such events, Harrison said. There is also a high risk of foot injuries, “especially in an earthquake when people start walking or running,” he explained. “They’re stepping on glass and so immediately you have a lot of foot injuries that occur.”
Because it may take days for paramedics and emergency services to arrive after a major disaster, injuries may become more severe and require more blood by the time a patient is transported to a hospital. “That blood loss is going to have to be accounted for once they arrive,” Harrison explained.
Building and maintaining a strong blood supply is an ongoing process, Ferro said. “We don’t have a specific limit and say, ‘Oh, we have enough today, you can all go home.’ That never happens.” When there is a greater shortage than usual, especially during this time of year, Ferro said the hospital will appeal to those visiting patients or even staff to augment their supply. “We always are interested in taking people who are willing to donate,” he said.
For more information about donating blood, contact the American Red Cross Greater Long Beach Chapter at 800/ RED-Cross or Long Beach Medical Center at 562/933-0808. To find a Red Cross blood drive near you, visit redcrossblood.org/give.html/find-drive.