Blood shortage leads to call for a hold on operations

Postponement urged in nonessential cases

July 01, 2000|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Declaring the worst blood shortage in years, the regional Red Cross has called upon hospitals throughout Maryland to postpone non-essential operations until Thursday at the earliest.

By then, officials hope, the surge in auto accidents and other injuries typically seen over the Fourth of July holiday will have subsided - along with the increased demand for blood.

"This is a very serious situation," said Gary Ouellette, blood services director for the Greater Chesapeake and Potomac Region. "We have not seen a situation like this in years."

Joined at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mayor Martin O'Malley, Ouellette called upon healthy adults who weigh at least 110 pounds to donate blood at emergency collection centers before driving to the beach or elsewhere on vacation.

Practically every summer, the Red Cross raises concerns about dwindling supplies as donations fall and the demand for blood increases. The summer is tough for blood banks because people who give at school or work are away on vacation - and patients injured on the road or in street violence begin to flood emergency rooms.

But this year might be the worst ever, according to doctors and nurses at local hospitals.

"I've been here for 20 years, and we've never gotten to the point where we didn't have blood to give to someone who critically needed it," said Dr. Bennett Edelman, director of the clinical laboratory at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "But we've come close, and this year we are coming close more often."

At Union Memorial, hospital officials were frantically searching yesterday for units of type B-positive blood for a man whose arm was nearly severed. The hospital prepared its last two pints for the patient but was ready to call other hospitals or the Red Cross if additional units were needed.

"I've been in the business 27 years, and I haven't seen it as bad as this," said Sandy Bartkowiak, the blood bank supervisor. "There is not one B-positive on my shelf."

Critical stage

The shortage began around Memorial Day but reached a critical stage this week - prompting the Red Cross to ask hospitals Thursday to postpone elective surgery. Yesterday, few procedures were delayed, though doctors said they were beginning to evaluate their operating room schedules to see which patients could wait.

Dr. Nathan Dunsmore, medical director of the blood bank at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said candidates for waiting would include patients scheduled for joint replacements, spinal fusions and hysterectomies not stemming from cancer. Many people scheduled for elective surgery store their own blood in advance - so postponing those cases would serve no purpose. Even so, Dunsmore said, hospitals could make a big impact if they made modest reductions in their surgical schedules. Each of a dozen hospitals postponing one procedure could, in effect, save enough blood for a trauma patient with life-threatening injuries.

Half-day's reserves

The local Red Cross, which furnishes blood to hospitals from Northern Virginia to southern Pennsylvania, usually has a three- or four-day supply of blood on hand, Ouelette said. Yesterday, he said the reserves were down to less than a half-day. Type O is especially valuable, because it can be given to patients with other blood types. In extreme emergencies, it may be given to people when there's little time to test their blood for a perfect match.

Blood shortages have worsened in recent years, in part because people are living longer and receiving more sophisticated care.

The Red Cross is also refusing donors at risk for AIDS, hepatitis and other infections. People who have spent more than six months in the United Kingdom are also being refused because of the risk of mad cow disease.

Collection centers are being set up at churches, community centers, businesses and fraternal organizations. To schedule an appointment, call 800-448-3543.

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