Whose blood is about to become mine?
That was my thought each time I watched a nurse hang a bag of dark red substance on my IV pole.
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer. During the six months of chemotherapy that followed, I received 12 red blood cell and three platelet transfusions. A total of 14.2 pints, according to my medical records. The average human adult has 8 to 10 pints.
During the two to three-hour red blood cell transfusion, I thought about the strangers whose blood I was receiving. Were they kind? Would we be friends if we ever met? Do they know that the few minutes they spent at their local blood drive or donation center helped save my life?
America’s leading blood donation organizations — The American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies — declared the nation’s first-ever blood crisis earlier this month, due to COVID-19.
The country’s blood supply is at its lowest point in over a decade. More than 16 million units of blood are transfused annually — that’s 45,000 units needed every day — and that shortage has forced some hospitals in the country to postpone surgeries and alter treatments, according to the organizations.
The pandemic is to blame, said Susan Forbes, senior vice president of corporate communications at OneBlood, Florida’s primary blood donation organization. When COVID-19 hit, most people started to work from home and blood drives typically held in offices or schools were canceled. Many are wary of entering public spaces and risking infection, and therefore are less likely to visit a blood donation center.
Those who have recovered from COVID-19 can donate blood. But Forbes said those who are feeling ill should wait until they’re healthy.
“It’s a very challenging time for blood centers locally and nationally,” she said, “and the surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant is further impacting the donor base.”
BayCare Health System, which runs 15 hospitals in Tampa Bay and central Florida, has also been hit by the blood shortage, said Jackie Cawley, vice president of population health and chief medical officer for ambulatory care.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
While BayCare hasn’t withheld procedures or transfusions from patients due to low supply, she said, inventory of certain blood products has run low, such as Type O blood. (Type O is compatible with any blood type and especially critical to trauma patients.)
BayCare has responded to low inventory by moving and sharing supply between its hospitals. BayCare also works closely with OneBlood, Cawley said, to coordinate supply and communicate the blood products in greatest demand.
The hospital system has also managed supply through its blood conservation program, she said, which offers comprehensive guidelines for when to transfuse blood and by how much. An unnecessary blood transfusion can be harmful to the recipient. It could also deprive a patient in critical need.
“We don’t allow people to just order five units of blood or something on a patient,” Cawley said. “We have guidelines that we ask physicians to follow so that we are only prepping the blood that is really, truly needed for the patient.”
‘That was so easy’
OneBlood has 88 donation centers in Florida and more than 200 Big Red Buses that collect blood between Florida and North Carolina. Forbes urges people who are healthy and eligible to donate.
“I’ve seen many first-time donors go, ‘That was so easy. I had no idea,’ " Forbes said.
The process for a whole blood donation takes 45 minutes, though it only takes 10 minutes to draw blood. The rest of the time is for filling out paperwork, checking vital signs, and staying put for about 15 minutes after the donation so the body can recover.
Before whole blood donations reach hospitals, Forbes said, they’re tested for infection and separated into their components — red blood cells, platelets, plasma. Each serves a different medical purpose, so one donation can help save the life of three patients.
People can also choose to donate platelets, which take about 90 minutes. This option is less popular because it takes more time and less people are aware of it. But platelet donations are critical. One donation can yield the same amount as 8 to 10 whole blood donations, Forbes said.
People can donate whole blood every 56 days (up to six times annually) and platelets every seven days (up to 24 times annually).
To increase donations, OneBlood launched a program earlier this month that allows blood recipients to send a thank you note to their donor. OneBlood can also notify donors via email when their donation reaches a patient.
Who can and who can’t donate
Less than 10 percent of Americans donate blood, Forbes said, but 40 percent of the U.S. population is eligible. Some LGBTQ advocates say more people should be eligible to save more lives.
During the AIDS epidemic four decades ago, the Food and Drug Administration barred men who have had sex with other men after 1977 from donating blood. The policy changed in 2015, allowing donations from men who abstained from sex with other men in the past year. The decline in donations during the pandemic led the agency in April 2020 to shorten the timeframe to the last three months.
Brandon Wolf, a spokesperson for Equality Florida, said the restriction is unnecessary given the advancement of blood testing technology and unfairly discriminates against gay and bisexual men.
He said the policy, which excludes queer men who are monogamous, test HIV negative and are practicing safe sex, exacerbates the blood supply crisis.
In August 2021, Wolf participated in an ongoing FDA-funded study to find alternatives to the current blood donation policy for men who have sex with men. As a study participant, Wolf said that he answered a set of targeted questions such as how many sexual partners he’s had, whether the sex was protected, and his HIV status. He then gave a blood sample that was tested for HIV.
Wolf said that he hopes the study will help the federal agency move toward a blood donor screening process that specifically looks for people who are HIV-positive or have unprotected sex, rather than imposing a blanket ban on all gay and bisexual men.
“It’s really time for us to update the policy so it reflects society in 2022 and what we know about HIV,” he said.
Nearly two dozen senators, led by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, called on the FDA to “update its outdated and discriminatory blood donors deferral policies,” according to a letter sent last month.
Time to decide
I needed frequent blood transfusions because chemotherapy drugs indiscriminately attack rapidly dividing cells, including both cancerous and healthy cells, like those in bone marrow, hair follicles and the digestive tract. Bone marrow is responsible for rapidly creating blood cells in the body.
During treatment, I had a blood test nearly every day to keep an eye on my body’s response to chemotherapy. When my hemoglobin level was too low — meaning that I was anemic and my red blood cells were struggling to supply oxygen to my tissues — I needed a red blood cell transfusion. When I didn’t have enough platelets, a blood cell component that clots blood and prevents uncontrollable bleeding, I needed a platelet transfusion.
Before the transfusion started, nurses checked my vital signs and ensured that the blood product was fresh and matched my blood type. (Receiving an incorrect blood type can be fatal.)
I watched the blood flow from the rectangular bag, through a long tube, and into the central venous catheter attached to my chest that infused fluids into a vein in my body. Fifteen minutes later, a nurse returned to check my vitals, monitoring my body for a reaction.
Chemotherapy was a horrific, lonely experience that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But one aspect of treatment that I found oddly beautiful were the blood transfusions. Seeing how seamlessly a stranger’s blood transfused into my body, allowing me to regain strength and feel more like myself again, dissolved my illusion that people are disparate units.
Blood donation, a process that tens of thousands of lives depend on every day, connects society in the most fundamental way. At some point, many of us will need someone else’s blood because we’ll get sick or hurt. We’re powerful enough to heal, and at the mercy of, each other.
Editor’s note: Rose Wong is a Report for America fellow who covers mental health and health care for the Tampa Bay Times. She underwent chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor in 2019. Rose went into remission in December 2019 until the following fall, when the cancer recurred. She underwent two months of radiation treatment in winter 2021 and has been kickin’ since.
Donate blood today
To find a blood drive or donation center near you, visit oneblood.org/donate-now/
Here’s who is eligible to donate blood:
- Anyone who is at least 17 years old, or 16 and has parental consent.
- Anyone who weighs at least 110 pounds (teen donors have their own weight and height requirements).
- People who are not pregnant. New parents must wait six weeks after giving birth.
- Those who feel well, have no fever and can breathe through their nose without issues.
- Those who do not have a condition that causes excessive bleeding.
- Those whose blood pressure is below 180/100 and above 90/50 (systolic/diastolic).
- Those who have never had leukemia or lymphoma, including Hodgkin’s Disease or other cancers of the blood.
- Cancer survivors whose treatment was completed more than 12 months ago and have had no recurrence since.
- Those diagnosed with syphilis or gonorrhea and three months have passed since treatment.
This is not a comprehensive list. Learn more about being eligible to donate blood at oneblood.org/learn/faq-eligibility.stml. If you’re unsure about your eligibility, it’s better to go to a donation center and consult the staff there than to self-defer.
• • •
How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
• • •
How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
• • •
More coronavirus coverage
OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.
KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.
BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.
BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.
GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.