Lack of blood donors becomes a problem in summer months

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Monday, July 28, 2008
— Blood is a perishable product.

Red blood cells have a shelf life of 42 days and platelets just five days, so they must be replenished constantly.

Therein lies the challenge for the American Red Cross as it works to meet a growing demand for blood, especially during the summer.

The number of eligible blood donors is shrinking, and blood donations by remaining donors drops off during busy summer months, said Sarah Stevermer, communications and public relations specialist for the Badger-Hawkeye Region of the Red Cross. The region covers most of Wisconsin, Northeastern Illinois, Eastern Iowa and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The Red Cross thought 60 percent of the U.S. population is eligible donate blood with 5 percent of them donating. But a recent study revealed that only 38 percent of the population is eligible, and of those only 8 percent donate.

"A lot of people are too young to give, and travel abroad makes many ineligible to give," said Tammy Newberry, donor recruitment representative for the South Central Wisconsin Chapter territory of the American Red Cross that serves all of Rock, Green and Jefferson counties.

Compounding the lack of blood donors are summer activities that occupy people's time and the summer break for high schools and colleges, interrupting school blood drives.

"People get busy, schedule vacations and kids aren't in school. When you get out of your routine, you get out of the routine of donating blood," Newberry said.

Other impacts

Other factors, including severe weather, flooding and flood cleanup have taken a toll on blood donations this year.

During the week of June 9, for example, blood donations were down by as much as 20 percent in many areas, including Rock, Green and Jefferson counties and elsewhere in the mid-section of the country where flooding and road closures forced the cancellation of blood drives.

"Many donors were unable to get to blood drives or are in the middle of extensive cleanup," Stevermer said.

But disaster can bring out the best in people. Blood drives elsewhere did well and made up for the lack of donations at the canceled blood drives here, Newberry said.

May was a weak month for blood donations but was offset by June, when blood drives were conducted in large businesses such as General Motors.

Typically, blood donations fall again in July, go back up in August and drop again in September because people can give blood only every eight weeks, Newberry said.

The Red Cross' goal is to get donations to be about the same each month.

"We want a consistent blood supply so we have units on the shelf when they are needed," Newberry said.

Campaigns to improve giving

To alleviate a potential blood supply shortfall, the Red Cross launched a "Meet the Need—Give Blood'' campaign. In addition to raising awareness about the challenging summer months for blood donations, the hope is to engage new and current blood donors through frequent communication and special promotions.

Postcard and e-mail campaigns to current donors will give regular updates about the state of the blood supply and when they are eligible to donate, Newberry said.

The Red Cross also partnered with the nonprofit Music Saves Lives to attract younger blood donors. Both organizations are offering blood donors at participating blood drives a free backstage pass to the Vans Warped Tour music festival. The Van Warped tour will appear Aug. 1 in Milwaukee. Details and a list of participating Music Saves Lives blood drives are listed online at www.givebloodgivelife.org.

The Red Cross also has teamed with 3M and Roush Fenway Racing to present Red Cross Racing to raise awareness of the need to give blood among NASCAR fans. The campaign features Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 Roush Ford, who is a regular American Red Cross blood donor. Race fans can visit www.redcrossracing.com for details.

"People who start donating blood at the beginning of the racing season earn donation points to be able to get racing gear—caps, T-shirts, jackets and limited edition die-cast cars—through January 2009," Newberry said.

The local supply

The past four May-through-September blood drives by the South Central Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross, headquartered in Janesville, fared well. But much of that is attributed to the huge impact of the General Motors/United Auto workers four-day blood drive at the plant.

During each of the plant's drives, more than 1,000 people gave blood. No other blood drive in the territory attracts as many givers, which concerns Newberry because she knows the Janesville assembly plant could close anytime before December of 2010.

"We'll be looking at ways to try to get more of that 38 percent of eligible donors to drives to make up for the huge loss. We'll start looking for other places to hold drives where we don't have them now," she said.

Other spikes in blood donations come from 10 local school blood drives in the fall and spring.

"They get pretty good numbers," Newberry said, "but schools are not interested in conducting blood drives in the summer, when school is ending or starting."


Donors must be at least 17 years old (or 16 with a signed American Red Cross parental/guardian consent form), weigh at least 100 pounds and be in good health. Cancer survivors should check the American Red Cross Web site at givebloodgivelife.org.


Eligible donors can call the South Central Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross, which covers all of Rock, Green and Jefferson counties at (608) 754-4497, 1-800-448-3543 or visit givebloodgivelife.org to schedule a blood or platelet donation.

All blood types are needed. A blood donor card or driver’s license, or two other forms of identification are required at check-in.

You can donate blood every 56 days, up to six times a year; platelets every three days (the American Red Cross recommends you donate every two to four weeks) up to 24 times a year; plasma every 28 days, up to 13 times a year; and double red cells every 112 days, up to three times a year.


Every 56 days

How often you can donate blood

6 percent to 8 percent

Annual blood usage increase mainly due to medical advances

42 days

Shelf life of red blood cells


Percentage of blood supply donated by high school and college students

Every 2 seconds

Someone in the United States will need a blood transfusion


-- July 28—2 to 6 p.m., Fellowship Hall of St. Stephen’s Family Center, 716 Shu Lar Lane, Clinton.

-- Aug. 1—Noon to 6 p.m., basement of Second Congregational Church, 657 Bluff St., Beloit.

-- Aug. 11—11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., gym of Bethel Baptist Church, 3300 Mt. Zion Ave., Janesville.

-- Aug. 12—1 to 6 p.m., gym of Bethel Baptist Church, 3300 Mt. Zion Ave., Janesville.

-- Aug. 13—11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., gym of Bethel Baptist Church, 3300 Mt. Zion Ave., Janesville.

-- Aug. 18—10:45 a.m. to 3 p.m., basement of South Central Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross office, 211 N. Parker Drive, Janesville.


Modern medicine has made complex and life-saving surgeries possible, but they require a safe and plentiful blood supply.

Here is the amount of blood needed in some circumstances:

Liver transplant: Six to 10 units of red blood cells, 20 units of plasma, 10 units of platelets.

Kidney transplant: One to two units of red blood cells.

Heart transplant: Four to six units of red blood cells.

Adult open-heart surgery: Two to six units of red blood cells, two to four units of plasma and one to five units of platelets.

Newborn open-heart surgery: One to four units of red blood cells, one to two units of plasma, one to four units of platelets.

Prostate cancer surgery: Two to four units of red blood cells.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm: Four to six units of red blood cells.

Bone marrow transplant: One to two units of red blood cells every other day for up to four weeks and one to 50 units of platelets throughout the course of the treatment.

Automobile accident: Four to 40 units of red blood cells.

Leukemia: Two to six units of red blood cells, one to 50 units of platelets throughout the course of treatment.

Sickle cell disease: 10 to 15 units of red blood cells to treat severe complications.

Premature newborn: One to four units of red blood cells while in intensive care.


Here are answers to some common blood questions:

Q: Why am I charged for blood at the hospital when I previously gave blood?

A: The Red Cross has been reimbursed by hospitals since 1960. The Red Cross does not charge hospitals for donor blood, only for its costs, such as recruiting and screening of donors, collecting blood by trained staff, processing and testing of each unit of blood and labeling, storing and distributing blood components.

Blood is covered under most health insurance policies, so it is rare for a patient to have to pay out-of-pocket for blood transfusions. However, hospitals do vary in what they charge for blood.

Q: Didn’t the Red Cross have a program where blood donors didn’t have to pay for the blood they received?

A: It was a reciprocity program that deferred one of the fees for blood. However, the blood was not totally free.

If a Red Cross donor received blood, he or she could reduce the amount of money he or she owed for the blood by replacing it or being able to prove he or she previously had donated blood. The patient still was charged a fee by the hospital for processing, administration and cross matching, but he or she could avoid "paying" for the blood (a third fee) by replacing it through donations.

Q: Why was this policy dropped?

A: Many years ago, some hospitals imposed an additional "nonreplacement fee" on patients if their families or friends did not provide blood donations to "replace" the blood that would be used in advance of their need for blood. Blood centers, including the American Red Cross, were asked to keep track of such donations as "credits" for those donors.

Apart from the cumbersome nature of administering the system, the Red Cross and other blood centers discontinued the policy because it discriminated against patients without family and friends and there was concern such a system would unduly influence some individuals to donate blood without being fully honest in answering all donor suitability questions.

Last updated: 9:43 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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