The pressure for blood

May 02, 1999|By Dallas Morning News

Blood, blood, blood, blood.

Probably not what you want to think about first thing in the morning. But a lot of people have no choice. They depend on someone else's blood to keep them alive.

They're not the folks you might think.

"If you'd ask people where the blood supply is needed, they'd say car accidents and shootings," says Dr. Merlyn Sayers, chief executive of a Dallas blood center. "What does not capture headlines is that, on any one day, there might be 300 patients with malignancies who are needing transfusions."

An accident victim might need just a single transfusion to repair, say, a lacerated liver. But a cancer patient, who needs blood to replace bone marrow killed by chemotherapy, can use two to 60 pints over two or three months.

We're always reading headlines that say supply doesn't come close to matching demand. In some parts of the country, shortages have postponed elective surgeries. On average, no matter what time of year, only 5 percent of eligible people donate, according to a Harris poll.

Sayers calls the why-don't-people-give issue "vexing." He offers several possible answers:

* Blood program stalwarts -- World War II veterans -- are dying off. They're being replaced with individuals who "view altruism a little differently," he says. "It's more difficult to get them to give of their time than it used to be."

* Giving blood takes more time than it once did. In days past, people could walk into a blood center, roll up a sleeve and be on their way in 20 minutes. Now, they first must answer a questionnaire designed to make sure their blood is safe. Then, potential donors must have their blood pressure checked, iron level tested, pulse rate taken. It could take 45 minutes to an hour.

* People tend to think donating is something someone else in their neighborhood will do.

* They think donating will make them sick, or that they'll pass out. OK, some people do faint. But very few.

* They're afraid of contracting AIDS or hepatitis. No chance, Sayers says. Every single piece of equipment used in the donating process is new, sterile and will never be used again.

* They think only rare blood types are needed. Wrong again. "Let's say there's a bus accident that involves 10 people and they all need surgery," Sayers says. "It's very unlikely they'll have a rare type."

The absolutely universal donor is O-negative, he says. But in extreme emergency, anybody can receive O-positive -- the most common type of blood.

"It sounds like an exaggeration to say that blood donation is a lifesaving act," he says. "But it is a lifesaving act. It truly is."

What you should know about giving blood

* You must be at least 17 and weigh at least 110 pounds to donate. There is no upper age limit.

* Donation takes less than an hour.

* One pint of blood can theoretically help more than one person: Red cells can go to someone who lost blood during surgery. Plasma can go to a burn victim. Platelets can be transfused into a leukemia patient.

-- Dallas Morning News

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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