When you’re sitting on the Big Red Bus, spend some time thinking about Charles Drew.
The African American surgeon and researcher invented a process of separating blood, prolonging the storage life of plasma. Considered the father of modern blood banking, he developed mobile donation and opened large blood banks during World War II. Later, he taught countless doctors at Howard University.
Seventy years after his death comes our spring of reckoning. As we try to create a more just and equitable world, blood plays a role.
The nonprofit OneBlood does this work locally. It isn’t taking walk-ins or parking the iconic bus at movie theaters and high schools right now. Donation is all via appointment. And since May, OneBlood has offered donors a free coronavirus antibody test. It explains, with some room for error, if you had the virus but didn’t know it.
If you did, your convalescent plasma can be split off (thanks, Dr. Drew!) and given to COVID-19 patients in an experimental treatment that may help fight the virus. Coronavirus patients are disproportionately black and Hispanic, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The disease is hitting minorities for a host of reasons, most of which stem from the systemic inequalities now under the national microscope.
Coronavirus aside, there’s a need for a more diverse blood pool. Four percent of blood donors are black, said OneBlood spokeswoman Susan Forbes. That’s too low, because black donors hold the key to treating sickle cell anemia, a disorder that primarily affects African Americans and can require lifelong blood transfusions.
“We live in a diverse country, and we have people here from all over the world," Forbes said. "Different ethnic groups and genetics play a role in finding matches for people who need blood.”
Shamefully, it has been seven years since I donated blood. My vessels are like dental floss, and finding an entry can be a gnarly expedition. And honestly, it is alarming to watch the blood bail out. Don’t I need that?
But if 2020 isn’t the time to get over ourselves, no time is. Despite my lily-livered ways, I made my appointment. Twice. I failed to pass the bar. Twice. My iron was too low, even after a bacon cheeseburger, a moat of spinach, a pantheon of chicken and a barge of quinoa. Please do not write telling me to take iron supplements. I have thought of this.
Other potential obstacles range from pregnancy to medications. And here’s one: For decades, a federal rule restricted men who had sex with men from donating blood, a decision born of the AIDS crisis. As these COVID patients were turned away from blood centers in April, the Food and Drug Administration relaxed the abstinence period to three months. That’s still not great. More studies are coming as some doctors and advocates work to end the rule. Forbes said men who have been deferred should contact OneBlood to get reinstated.
Let’s do the best we can here. Don’t be like me and wait years. Eligible people can donate whole blood every 56 days, plasma every 28 and platelets every seven. Help someone hurt by the pandemic. But know, too, that cancer patients and premature babies and sickle cell patients will not go away when the crisis fades.
To make an appointment, visit oneblood.org or call 1-888-9DONATE.
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