Why the blood bank never has enough

Snow, wind, fire — and regulation — contribute to an urgent need

Untitled Document Lying with a needle in his arm and parts of his blood streaming into three separate bags, David Parsons is    donating platelets, which takes longer than   donating whole blood, so he has plenty of time to get philosophical. He says in his line of work he’s rejected by 95 percent of the population. “You know you’re helping to save lives, but you have to be a bit of a masochist in this job,” says the veteran CEO of the Central Illinois Community Blood Center, which serves 19 hospitals in 14 counties from its headquarters in Springfield. The fact that only 5 percent of the population donates blood is only one of his problems, he says: “Last year we had one of our worst-luck years ever.”
I keep hearing on NewsChannel 20 that there’s an “urgent need” for blood donors. It seems that the blood center is always having some kind of problem causing a new “urgent need.” Last year the bloodmobile caught fire and was out of service for much of the year, resulting in a 10 percent decrease in donations. The tornado last March knocked out a week of collections and put the whole town in a bad mood — not good for the blood business. As soon as the bloodmobile got running again, the December ice storm knocked out power for two days and kept donors at home again. Besides all this, during the Blagojevich years Springfield has lost thousands of state workers, who make the best donors. Many of them now have become consultants, who see time as money and don’t take the time to give, or service workers, who can’t get off work without losing pay.
The blood center knows that it can’t be crying “urgent need” to the media too often, or nobody will pay attention. But whole blood only lasts 42 days and platelets only five days. Like food, blood has an expiration date. You have to have too much to have enough when you need it. Actually, because blood requires at least a day of testing, you have to have it before you need it. Donors respond to a trauma such as 9/11, but the only blood that could help those victims was donated by 9/10. A single patient — for instance, a recent central-Illinois aneurysm case that required 60 units of blood — can wipe out the entire supply of a certain blood type. A   trauma patient can sometimes need more than 200 units of blood, requiring donations from 200 people. When I visited the blood center this week, the staff said there is currently no crisis in the blood supply but that, partly because of the recent snowstorm, they are below the three-day supply they like to have on hand — so, as usual, there is an “urgent need.”
As Parsons and his staff keep trying to recruit more donors, those in charge of making the nation’s blood supply ever safer keep finding new reasons to disqualify some donor groups. Scientists have recently learned that certain antibodies in the blood of women who have ever been pregnant can cause a reaction in patients called transfusion-related acute lung injury, or TRALI. Emphasizing that all women donors are still needed to give blood, Parsons says that beginning this fall, nationwide, most plasma products will only be taken from male donors. “We’re going to try to have an all-male supply of plasma for transfusion,” Parsons says, “but we still may need plasma from women who are blood type AB.” At least one small group is being partially brought back into the donor pool. Beginning in July, when the state of Illinois starts regulating tattoo parlors, those who receive tattoos will only be deferred from donating blood for a month, rather than for a year, as is required when a tattoo is administered in an unregulated parlor.
When Parsons started in the blood business, in 1971, the only test on donated blood was for syphilis. Now donated blood is subjected to 14 tests, including those for hepatitis B and C, West Nile virus, HIV, and, still, syphilis. Each test adds to the lab fee paid by participating hospitals for the blood. “Every donation costs us over $200,” Parsons says, and tests on the blood account for $45 of that. The Food and Drug Administration has recently approved a new test, for Chagas disease, a bloodborne illness that mainly affects Latin Americans. The Chagas test, which may be required sometime this year, could add $10 to the cost of testing each unit of blood. But those costs are paid by the hospitals, their patients, and insurance companies. The Central Illinois Community Blood Center is that rare nonprofit group that doesn’t routinely ask you for cash. “We ask for donations of blood, not money,” Parsons says. If the center runs short of contributions, there are no foundations handing out large grants of blood. Only people have what it needs — so the blood center’s only hope is to keep appealing to you and me to meet its “urgent need.”  

To donate blood, call 217-753-1530 or set up an appointment online at cicbc.org.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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