In California, a special need for giving blood

Right now, blood donors are in short supply.

It seems that blood supplies typically drop in the week immediately before and after Easter. School vacations mean fewer blood drives on campuses, and less blood for patients in need. 

In Northern California, for instance, the American Red Cross currently has a three-day supply of blood on hand, down from the preferred five-day supply.

So I decided to write this week about my personal stake in the blood donor world.

Years ago, I emerged from anesthesia in a Rochester, N.Y., hospital to learn that my surgery had become more complicated than anyone could have foreseen.  I had begun hemorrhaging, and urgently needed a transfusion of four pints of blood.

That’s a lot of blood--most human bodies only hold 10 to 12 pints—but fortunately the surgical team had typed and matched my blood in advance, and I recovered quickly.

That should have made me a lifelong blood donor.  But the story wasn’t that predictable. Ever since I first tried donating blood in college, I had been rejected because my blood pressure was too low.  I gave up long ago.

Then, one day last year, my journalist colleagues spotted a bloodmobile near our Alhambra office and urged me to join them and donate blood. 

I went along for the walk, explaining to them that this was an exercise in futility.

To my surprise, my blood pressure passed muster. I donated blood for the first time in my life, seated alongside my colleagues in the back of the bloodmobile operated by Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

A few weeks later, I learned from a Huntington employee that my blood type is relatively rare and sorely needed by trauma patients in emergency rooms.

Embarrassed, I confessed that 20 years had passed since I even attempted to give blood.  In that time, my blood could have helped many people requiring transfusions.

A number of people give up after one or two tries. Maybe their blood pressure was too high, their blood count too low.  But our bodies change, and so can our donor status.  We can also ask a friend or relative to give blood in our stead.

As Californians, we have an extra incentive.  Residents here typically donate less blood than those in a number of other states.

Roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of California residents meet donor criteria.  Of that group, fewer than 3 percent actually give blood, said Nick Samaniego, public affairs manager at the Red Cross blood service region for Southern California.

“That’s a scary number,” Samaniego said.  “Depending on the time of year, we can be importing 20 percent to 40 percent of our blood from other parts of the country.”

Last week, I got an email from Huntington Memorial about a critical shortage of my blood type.

So I stopped by the hospital’s blood bank on Friday and relaxed in a comfortable low-slung chair while a nurse used a needle to attach a long thin tube to my right arm.

The needle barely stung.  I could peer over the side of the chair and see a clear plastic bag filling with blood.

Since my first donation, I’ve learned that having my blood type has a down side.  I can only receive blood from a donor with the same type. So those four pints I got in Rochester must have come from four people who shared my rare type of blood.

Since most donors can give blood again two months later, I will have paid back those four pints by Labor Day.   Then I can become a bonafide donor.

You can use your zip code to search for local blood donation centers on the website of AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks.

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