Do you donate blood? If you’re like the majority of Americans –- more than 90 percent -- the answer is no. Most people don’t think about it in their busy lives. Or they feel someone else will take up the slack.
Unfortunately that’s not the case. Less than 40 percent of Americans are eligible to donate; travel to certain areas of the world, illnesses, and other factors prevent others from donating. Of those who are eligible, only 10 percent donate annually. And yet, someone in this country needs blood every two seconds.
Debbie Mincarelli, administrative director of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t donate routinely. “I was personally terrified of needles," she said. But that all changed in 2008 when Nick, her then 5-year old son, was diagnosed with cancer.
“During his first battle he received 43 weeks of chemotherapy combined with eight weeks of proton therapy. After he relapsed nine short months after finishing his first regime, he began a second battle where he endured the equivalent of 60 weeks of chemotherapy combined with six weeks of traditional radiation. Then six short months later, he relapsed again and received another 16 weeks of chemotherapy.
“Over those three and a half years, Nick needed countless transfusions. We relied on the generosity of strangers to support us, “ she continued. Nick earned his “angel wings” this past March.
Most patients who receive blood never have the opportunity to tell donors how much they have helped. At a special donor recognition event sponsored by the Penn Medicine Blood Donation Center, Debbie did. “You gave Nick 3 ½ more years to build Legos and four more Halloweens. You gave Nick’s brother 3 ½ more years to play Marco Polo in the pool and build sandcastles at the beach with his brother” she said. “You gave me 3 ½ more years of the best hugs a mother could ever imagine.”
There is no substitute for blood. It cannot be manufactured or harvested. Blood donors are the only source of blood for those who need it. And many do, including patients undergoing surgery or treatment for cancer or who have inherited blood disorders. A shortage of blood could, literally, mean the difference between life and death.
Donating blood is easy. In fact, the actual donation part for whole blood only takes about 10 minutes. Your body will replace the donated blood within one month. People can safely donate blood every two months.
Donated blood is tested and then divided into its components: red blood cells, platelets and plasma. In this way, one unit of blood can help save the lives of three people. Platelets are essential to patients undergoing bone marrow transplantations or receiving many forms of chemotherapy. A drop in their platelet count makes them susceptible to life-threatening bleeding. And, while red blood cells can be kept for up to six weeks, platelets are viable for only five days. As a result, it’s crucial to keep the supply coming.
Penn’s Blood Donation Center recently added a Platelet Collections Program to its Whole Blood Collections Program in which apheresis is used to specifically collect platelets. It is a longer donation process -– closer to an hour -– but the benefits to patients are immense. “Each platelet apheresis donation provides 12 times as many platelets as does a whole blood donation," said Don Siegel, MD, PhD, director of Transfusion Medicine & Therapeutic Pathology at HUP.
Donating is a selfless act; really, an act of heroism. “The legacy that you leave by donating your blood is one that so many others appreciate and cherish,” Debbie said. “Whether you give someone four more hours, four more days, four more months, they and their loved ones will be forever thankful for those moments.”
Photo caption: Debbie Mincarelli and her son Nick in 2010.