Blood banks typically see a decrease in donations during the winter months as the cold weather keeps donors indoors.
Before he worked in a blood bank, Dr. Edahn Isaak trained to be a surgeon. He saw the need for blood every day, and during winter, he saw the supply deplete, leading him to wonder what would happen if donors didn’t come along to fill the shortage.
"There’s an assumption out there that there will always be enough blood, that someone will always take care of it," said the director of Transfusion Medicine for Staten Island University Hospital.
"I don’t think people should assume that. About five percent of eligible donors in the United States are carrying the ball for all patients in the country who need blood," he continued. "I don’t want to scare people, but there should be more people contributing."
January is National Blood Donor Month. It’s also the month when blood banks face shortages for reasons ranging from people being too busy to donate during the holiday season, to collection sites like high schools and colleges being closed, and cold weather keeping donors indoors.
"Finally, once it seems like the holidays are over, we find ourselves going into flu season and people cannot donate if they’re not feeling well," said Christine Dingfelder, manager of Research and Medical Communications at the New York Blood Center (NYBC).
LOWEST DONATION RATE
In the New York Metropolitan area, NYBC needs to collect about 2,000 units (pints) of blood per day to maintain a sufficient supply, Ms. Dingfelder said, adding it likes to have a five- to seven-day supply on hand for comfort.
Last year, the center collected 161,083 units of blood throughout the five boroughs, including at its New Springville site. Staten Islanders contributed the lowest amount in the city — 10,617 units, or 6.6 percent. Manhattan had the most donations, 76,845 or 47.7 percent.
The blood collected by NYBC is distributed to hospitals throughout the area, including Staten Island University Hospital. It is used to treat a variety of patients, from trauma patients to those with cancer, from premature babies to people with chronic
illnesses like sickle cell anemia.
"I think people expect in our country — and especially this part of the United States where we’re surrounded by so many excellent hospitals — something like blood to be taken care of. That if you become ill, the blood will be there," Ms. Dingfelder said. "Since we only have volunteer blood donors, unless people take time to give blood, the supply is not going to be there."
Last year, Richmond University Medical Center in West Brighton collected close to 600 units of blood — and transfused almost 5,000 units, according to blood bank manager Ann Marie Brown. The hospital made up the difference by purchasing blood from Metro Blood Service in Yonkers, N.Y.
"We would never be able to do it [transfusions] otherwise," Ms. Brown said. "If we had more donors, that would be a lot better," she continued, pointing out, "Blood is only good for 42 days, so we have to continually replenish it."
Ms. Brown explained that the donation process usually takes about 45 minutes, including a mini physical at the beginning to make sure a person is eligible to donate. Donors typically have to be at least 16 years old (with parent’s written consent), in good health and weigh more than 110 pounds.
At Staten Island University Hospital, Dr. Isaak said he saw about 3,500 units of blood collected last year, far less than the 14,000 or so units transfused.
He said people tend to donate for several reasons. Some have had loved ones who required a blood transfusion and saw the need for replenishing the supply, while others began donating and realized what Dr. Isaak describes as the "tremendous feeling of fulfillment and altruism" and went on to become dedicated donors.
"Blood donation is, unfortunately, a cyclical phenomenon," he said. "We see blood donations drop off at times of the year like holidays, over the summers and sometimes due to inclement weather. But, "On the flip side," he concluded, "the need for blood is rather steady."
Andrea Boyarsky is the Health editor at the Advance. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.