January is National Blood Donor Month and a wonderful time to pay tribute to the generous members of our community who donate blood for our patients in need. However, statistics tell us that on average, only about 5 percent of the eligible population donate blood. Combine this with the fact that the increasing complexities of medical care are requiring more blood transfusions for patients and the result is that we are beginning to experience occasional nationwide blood shortages. This is particularly true in the winter months (both during the holidays and when the cold and flu seasons hit) and during the summer when people take vacations.
The blood donation process is safe and easy. Donors are first asked to complete a questionnaire regarding their general health, medications and recent travel. They are then escorted to a private area where a trained professional takes their blood pressure, pulse, temperature and checks their blood count or “iron level.” This mini-physical examination helps ensure that the donation process is safe for the donor. Then, donors are asked some questions about their personal contacts and lifestyle. While these questions may seem repetitive, they are an important tool in maintaining the safety of our blood supply.
After the interview, donors are taken to a donor chair where their arms are cleaned and their blood is drawn. This part of the donation process takes about 10 minutes. When finished, a bandage is applied to the arm and the donor can indulge in the delicious juice and cookies that the process has come to be associated with. Persons who donate a single unit of whole blood can return in 56 days for another donation.
Once a unit of whole blood is donated, it is separated into three parts, called components, each with a different medical use:
- Red blood cells, the component we typically think of, transport oxygen to the tissues and are used to treat anemia (low blood) in trauma patients, surgical patients, cancer patients and in premature babies.
- Platelets are the small fragments of cells that the body needs to make blood clots. Platelets are most often given to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
- Plasma is the liquid portion of blood and is used to treat persons with bleeding disorders.
The different components of a single unit of blood are usually given to different patients; this is why it is often said that a single blood donation can save up to three separate lives.
The safety of the blood supply is always of critical concern and is greater now than at any other time in medical history. This safety is maintained by the screening process and the sophisticated testing that takes place after every unit is donated. All blood is tested for transfusion-transmitted diseases: HIV (the AIDS virus), HTLV (another uncommon transfusion-associated virus), hepatitis B, hepatitis C, West Nile Virus and syphilis. It is important to note that the needles and bags used to collect blood are made in such a way that they can only be used one time: it is not possible to get a transfusion-transmitted disease by donating blood.
I am often asked if there is medical benefit to the donor by donating blood. While some older medical literature associated phlebotomy (blood removal) with improved cardiovascular status, this observation has not been upheld under rigorous scientific scrutiny. But we do know that blood donation is safe for the majority of our population. Furthermore, we know that giving of one’s self by helping others can be associated with an improved outlook and positive attitude. Blood donors leave their donation session having given of themselves a precious substance for which there is no substitute. They also leave knowing that in an hour’s time, they have helped to save another person’s life. So while it can’t be said that blood donation is medically “good for the heart,” it certainly “does the heart good.”
Jeanne Lumadue, MD, PhD, is a board certified anatomic and clinical pathologist, with subspecialty certification in Transfusion Medicine. Her primary affiliation is with Mount Nittany Medical Center.