“Some people wait to give until there is a tragedy, or there’s a big emergency,” says Brooke Way, the communications manager for Vitalant, a nonprofit that collects and distributes blood. “Well, it’s the blood that is already on the shelf that helps during those emergency situations, and that’s why we need regular donations throughout the year.”
Way herself has a blood disorder, which requires monthly blood transfusions. “[Blood donation] is very close to me personally and so I’m very passionate about this cause,” she adds.
Vitalant is headquartered in Arizona and collects blood from an array of blood donation centers and mobile blood drives— distributing the blood to roughly 900 different hospitals across America.
Operating from coast to coast, Vitalant has more than 100 blood centers across the U.S., including blood donation centers here in Colorado that offer daily donation appointments in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Littleton, Greeley, Highlands Ranch, Golden, Parker, and Westminster.
Vitalant will also open a new donation center in Grand Junction this October. “We’re excited to be in all the regions of Colorado,” says Way. “We try to make it as convenient as possible for our donors to come visit us whenever they can fit it into their schedule.”
For those living in more remote areas like Gunnison, mobile blood drives — in partnership with hosting organizations like Western and the Gunnison Community Center — bring donation opportunities to communities across the state.
“Anyone can host a blood drive,” adds Way.
All of the blood collected in Colorado will soon make its way to Vitalant’s regional blood laboratory in Lowry, Colorado, where the blood will be readied for distribution while samples are tested to ensure that donations are free of infectious diseases.
The blood is stored at the facility until hospitals place their blood orders — then it’s sent by courier to more than 70 different hospitals and healthcare facilities around the state. In emergency situations, Vitalant can fastrack ground transportation utilizing emergency sirens, or even put blood on planes for out-of-state patients.
The next drive at Western will be on Wednesday, Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the University Center. There is also a drive at the Gunnison Community Center from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
The subsequent Western drive will be on Nov. 16 — just before students leave for Thanksgiving Break.
You can search for upcoming blood drives and make appointments using Vitalant’s mobile app, which is available on the Apple Store and Google Play store, or via their website: donors.vitalant.org. You can also call Vitalant at 877-258-4825 to obtain more information about appointments and donations.
The constant need for blood
Way notes that the need for blood in hospitals is neverending. Typically, hospitals try to maintain a four day supply of blood across all types — the positive and negative varieties of A, B, AB and O.
O negative blood — the universal blood donor type, is always in high demand for usage in emergency situations where the recipient’s blood type is unknown. But Way is quick to note that donations from all blood types are needed on a regular basis.
In recent times, supply has shrunk to around two days’ reserve, and Way is quick to note that blood is used much more quickly than many people may assume. “[Blood] gets used very quickly — we have orders coming in daily from different hospitals,” she says.
Driving that shortage is a lagging issue with supply stemming from Covid-19. As the pandemic shuttered schools and universities, offices, churches, and other sources of donation — blood drives were canceled and the overall supply suffered.
More frequent sickness also fueled the shortage. Even now, Vitalant and other blood providers are playing catchup to meet the nation’s consistent need.
Way also points to the seasonality of blood donations as an exacerbating factor, “Summer is a really difficult time for blood donations because people are out of school, they’re traveling, and they’re not doing their typical routine in the summer…so that’s when blood donations are going out to patients faster than they are coming in.”
She encourages people to schedule an appointment for the upcoming weeks to help Vitalant ensure that there is enough blood to supply hospitals. “If people come in to give at least twice a year, we can really avoid these shortage situations,” Way adds.
For those who are apprehensive about giving, or who may have had a bad experience in the past, Way encourages people to give blood donation a chance.
“You may love it, and if you don’t give it a try you’ll never know. Our phlebotomists are trained to make you as comfortable as possible, and they’ll walk you through everything. If you do have concerns, you can speak to them about anything to make you comfortable. And if it’s not for you, [you can] encourage your friends and family to give blood.”
Way pivots to the importance of cultivating a reliable network of blood donors, “We really need the younger generation to come out and start giving blood regularly, ” she says, adding that many frequent, often lifetime donors are now aging into their 70s or 80s.
Many of these older donors can trace their blood donation habit to their parents, or to an early experience in school. World War II — Way notes, was really the genesis of blood donation in the United States — with a great need emerging among wounded soldiers in the European and Pacific theaters.
“We really need people who are in high school or college to start giving at an early age and keep giving throughout their lives. Especially with this younger generation that is so focused on giving back to their community — this is such an easy way to do so, and one donation can save three lives,” she offers.
When people think of blood donation, they likely envision simply filling up a bag with blood. Whole blood donations are the most common donation type, and take one of the body’s roughly six pints of blood. However, there are four major types of donations.
- Whole blood — the donor donates a pint of blood, which is used in a variety of medical situations. Typically whole blood donations take about one hour, including the pre-screening questions (faster if the questions are completed online or on the app beforehand). Whole blood donors can donate up to six times per year, once every eight weeks.
- Power red — “Power Red is similar to a whole blood donation, except a special machine is used to allow you to safely donate two units of red blood cells during one donation while returning your plasma and platelets to you,” notes the American Red Cross’s website.
“[Power red donations] help trauma victims, sickle cell patients, and people needing surgeries,” adds Way. These donations take a bit longer, roughly 90 minutes. Power red donors can donate up to three times per year, once every 16 weeks.
- Platelet — “Platelet donations are vital to many cancer patients. Chemotherapy can destroy platelets, a key blood component for clotting blood to stop bleeding. This type of donation is collected with a machine that removes your platelets and returns your red blood cells and plasma to you,” offers Vitalant’s website.
The process is known as apheresis, and Way notes that “a lot of people actually feel really refreshed after giving platelets.
Platelet donations take a bit longer, around two to three hours, and can also help people undergoing organ transplants and open heart surgery. Donors can give as frequently as every seven days.
- Plasma — From Vitalant’s website: “Plasma, the liquid portion of your blood, carries all the other parts of your blood. Plasma donations often help people with serious burns or major blood loss caused by other traumas. This type of donation also involves an automated [apheresis] process to remove only the plasma from your blood.”
Plasma can be donated once every 28 days, and takes around two hours.
The basic eligibility requirements for blood donation, taken from Vitalant’s website page on eligibility and requirements, are as follows:
- Must be at least 16 years old (16- and some 17-year-olds must bring a signed permission form from a parent or guardian, if required by state or school).
- Weigh at least 110 pounds. Certain height/weight criteria may apply for donors 22 years old or younger. For specific requirements in your area, please call 877-258-4825.
- Be in good general health.
- For your safety and to ensure a positive donation experience, make sure you eat within two hours ahead of your donation. Drink plenty of water that day and 24 to 48 hours beforehand. Feel free to help yourself to something to eat and drink in our refreshment area.
- Bring your ID—something with your name and one of the following: date of birth, donor ID number or your photo.
- You must wait eight weeks between whole blood donations. Learn more about specific intervals for other types of donation.
- You should not be under the influence of alcohol or recreational drugs at the time of donation.
For more information on giving blood, including additional information on scheduling appointments and the eligibility requirements. you can visit Vitalant’s website.