A healthful habit

October 16, 2003

IN TERMS of blood, the Baltimore-D.C. area is a chronic user community. It's the fifth-largest region in the United States when judged by need, and relies on the kindness and strength of others nationwide.

Beyond the usual high demand because it is an urban center, Baltimore is home to major organ transplant centers that perform surgeries for scores of patients. American Red Cross workers estimate they need donors to give 1,300 units of blood each working day just to maintain this region's supply. They're not getting it, and are relying more on "import" blood from other regions - now up to 15 percent of this region's blood use.

At the Red Cross' Greater Chesapeake and Potomac regional center, there were zero ready-to-go bags in the cooler on a recent afternoon. The cause of this shortage wasn't a spike in usage, officials say, but the trend of rising need unmet by donations, and the word is that this is the worst that it has been.

Blood cannot be made in a factory - it comes from volunteers (166,000 in the Chesapeake region) who walk in and lie down on a donor couch. Yet only 5 percent of all eligible people actually donate, a sliver that must grow to keep up with demand that is growing at 3 percent to 5 percent a year.

Donations spike in response to a crisis, but crisis giving isn't ideal - the donated blood isn't immediately usable. For example, the Red Cross considers the real donor heroes of 9/11 to be the folks who gave blood five and six days before the tragedy, because it takes that long for a donation to pass through testing and be certified good.

Better to have this vital supply at the ready, bolstered by regular donations from individuals whose gift helps others to live.

Some donors also bring their kids, so they'll see how everyday it is, and how a needle isn't so scary. Young adults ages 16 to 29 are a growing segment of donors and make up one-quarter of the region's donors, mostly through school blood drives.

Add donation to the calendar - make it a habit, every two months, like getting a haircut. Red Cross info line: 1-800-448-3543.

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