Got 15 minutes? Save three lives.

January 10, 2017 Providence Health Team

Giving blood is as American as baseball. Blood donation programs are plentiful in most communities, and bloodmobiles are common sights at schools, churches and community centers. Organizations like the American Red Cross make giving blood easy and appeal to our desire to help others in need.

But how much do you know about blood, and donating it? January is National Blood Donor Month, which makes it the perfect time to get to know your blood and how and where to give it.

Every two seconds

According to the American Red Cross, one in four Americans will need a blood transfusion at some point in their lives. In fact, an American needs blood every two seconds. People of all ages and types, including children, need blood for many reasons: a severe trauma, such as a serious car crash; when very ill or anemic; and during some surgeries. The Red Cross holds more than 145,000 blood drives each year and yet, in disaster situations, there’s often a shortage of blood to treat the victims.

A century of banking blood

It was only a century ago that the first blood “depot” was set up in advance of a major battle during World War I. Army doctors collected type O blood and mixed it with citrate-glucose solution, an anticoagulant and red cell preservative in preparation for massive casualties.

Then, in 1938, an ambitious young physician named Charles R. Drew received a research fellowship at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center to focus on blood chemistry, plasma preservation and transfusion. His dissertation on “banked blood” described a technique he developed for the long-term preservation of blood plasma.

Prior to the technique Dr. Drew described in his dissertation, blood could not be stored more than two days because of the breakdown of red blood cells. By separating the plasma (the liquid part of blood) from the whole blood (where the red blood cells exist) and then refrigerating them separately, Dr. Drew discovered the two parts could be combined up to a week later for a blood transfusion.

A year later, Dr. Drew’s research was put to the test in Great Britain where he was tasked with collecting and distributing donated blood for British soldiers and civilians. England had entered World War II the year before and the number of casualties was increasing by the day.

The doctor and his associates traversed Great Britain in trucks fitted with refrigerators for storing blood– the first bloodmobiles. During the five-month program the team collected blood from more than 15,000 donors and gave approximately 1,500 transfusions.

The Blood for Britain program was so successful that Dr. Drew was tapped for the assistant director position at a pilot plasma bank in the United States, sponsored by the American Red Cross and National Research Center. After the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the bank helped save thousands of American soldiers around the world.

Blood banks essential to society

Dr. Drew’s legacy laid the groundwork for programs that now collect blood from 6.8 million people in the U.S. each year. Because of this massive contribution, millions of people (as many as 5 million a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) receive lifesaving transfusions.

Donated blood has a shelf life of only 42 days, however, so the Red Cross encourages donors to give regularly. In fact, a healthy donor can give blood every 56 days.

Thinking about giving blood?

Almost anyone can donate blood. According to the Red Cross, a person can give blood if he or she is in good health or feeling well; is at least 17 years old in most states, or 16 years old with parental consent if allowed by state law; and weighs at least 110 pounds. All blood types are accepted: O, A, B and AB. The Red Cross provides a comprehensive criteria list for potential donors.

What blood type means

We all bleed red, the saying goes, and while all blood is indeed made of the same basic elements, not all blood is alike. There are four major blood groups, each determined by the presence or absence of two antigens, the surface markers found on red blood cells. And just as you inherit your hair and eye color, you also inherit your blood type.

Here’s what determines blood types:

  • Type A has only the A antigen on red cells
  • Type B has only the B antigen on red cells
  • Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells
  • Type O has neither A nor B antigens
  • A third marker called the Rh factor can be negative or positive

If you don’t know your blood type, a simple test will provide the answer. Ask your health care provider.

What’s the process, and how long does it take?

The Red Cross outlines an easy four-step process they follow. The first step is painless - filling out registration paperwork. Next, you’ll have a quick and private interview about your health history and a mini exam. If you pass the eligibility criteria, you’ll be seated at one of the stations where your arm will be cleansed before the needle is inserted. The blood donation takes about 10 minutes.

Approximately one pint of blood is collected, or one-tenth of the total amount of blood in the average adult body. The plasma from your donation is replaced within about 24 hours, but red cells need four to six weeks for complete replacement.

After your donation is done, you’ll get a bandage placed on your arm, and then be treated to juice and cookies as you rest for 10-15 minutes.

Don’t let the needle scare you

If you fear the needle more than any other part of this process, you’re not alone. The Red Cross claims it’s one of the most common reasons people give for not giving blood. If you want to get a sense of what the needle feels like entering your arm, give the underside of your arm a good pinch. That’s all it is – and it’s over in seconds.

Perhaps it will bolster your courage knowing that by giving blood you’re helping up to three people.

Resources for you

If you have questions about your blood or giving blood, contact your health care provider. You can find a Providence provider in our multistate directory.

The American Red Cross website is an excellent source of information, as well as a resource for finding blood donation drives in your area. The site also explains the history of blood donation and banking.

Learn more about Dr. Drew and his impressive legacy. The doctor excelled in his profession, academics and sports, and as an African American man had to overcome racial prejudices.

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