Of all the procedures performed in hospitals, people might be surprised to learn the one done most frequently.

“Blood transfusion is the single most common procedure we do in the United States,” said Gustaaf de Ridder, MD, PhD, system director of Transfusion Services at Geisinger Medical Center. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”

With January being National Blood Donor Month, now is a good time to acknowledge that blood is needed to save people.

“There are a lot of people who will get through whatever it is they’re going through if there’s blood to give them,” de Ridder said. “But if there isn’t, many of them will die. It’s directly lifesaving.”

Lisa Landis, regional director of Marketing and Communications for the American Red Cross Greater Pennsylvania Region, said blood levels are pretty much the same across the region, including in the Susquehanna Valley.

“We are in a very critical need right now for blood donors,” she said. “For plasma donors too. We have put out a call for donors.”

Geisinger, which works with Miller-Keystone Blood Center, based in Bethlehem, was able to weather the pandemic so far, de Ridder said, partly due to the hospital decreasing or delaying elective surgeries and also by increasing blood drives at their hospitals.

“We had enough blood to support the most vulnerable populations of our patients who are going to need it,” he said, noting populations like cancer patients, trauma patients and obstetrics patients who have unpredictable bleeding events and need blood regardless of the shortage.

When blood drives at typical venues like schools and churches were shuttered, Geisinger hosted drives at their hospital sites, local fire halls and other places. They were successful in filling those drives to capacity, de Ridder said.

“So we actually have been in pretty good shape because of everybody working together in the whole community within the hospital and outside the hospital,” he said. “Which brings us to today.”

He went on to explain that he had recently sent a message throughout the Geisinger system with somewhat stricter, temporary transfusion guidelines, trying to preserve the hospital’s inventory, which is currently where it needs to be.

The problem is, blood suppliers regionally and nationally have reported a severe shortage of multiple types of red blood cells and a moderate shortage of platelets, de Ridder said.

“What that means is, when our inventory starts to dwindle locally, there’s no backfilling it,” he said. “There’s no way to import extra products from around the country when there’s a national shortage. So we’re about to ramp up our collection events through Miller-Keystone.”

Blood drives through the pandemic

Setting up blood drives during the pandemic has been challenging, Landis said, partly because, as de Ridder pointed out, the venues that typically host them had been temporarily closed. The Red Cross reached out to those venues and also found new partners in local businesses. Red Cross workers encourage people who feel healthy to donate.

“Every unit of donated blood can save up to three lives,” Landis said. “It’s amazing. You think, in just an hour of your time you can save so many.”

At each blood drive, Red Cross teams can collect upwards of 100 units of blood, which can translate into 300 lives saved.

“It really is impactful,” Landis said. “It can only come from healthy and well donors.”

Blood from COVID survivors especially helpful

In a typical blood drive, donors give one unit of whole blood in a process that takes 10 to 15 minutes. That blood can be separated into one unit of red blood cells, one unit of plasma and a small amount of platelets. Donors who have already recovered from coronavirus disease can choose instead to participate in convalescent plasma donation, which may contain antibodies against COVID-19.

“There are two ways COVID-19 survivors can help – through a convalescent plasma donation or by simply giving blood. Plasma from whole blood donations that test positive for COVID-19 antibodies may be used to help COVID-19 patients,” as stated on the Red Cross’s website.

“If you had the virus, you need to have been symptom-free for two weeks and have proof of a positive test,” de Ridder said.

“We test all units of blood for COVID antibodies,” Landis said. “You’re then a potential convalescent donor. We’re encouraging those folks to donate.”

The FDA continues to study and update the guidelines for whole blood, plasma and platelet donations.

Whether an individual donates blood through the Red Cross or through a Miller-Keystone service at Geisinger, de Ridder noted, the blood units aren’t necessarily going to a specific hospital.

“That donation could be going to your neighbor or your mother, but it’s going to somebody’s neighbor, somebody’s mother,” he said. “And that’s the point. You’re helping people in general.”

n Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com

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