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Arkansas' Critical Need for Blood Donations

Every two seconds, someone in the United States needs blood. Donating blood is safe, and it is essential for saving lives. Executive Director Lori Arnold-Ellis and Regional Communications Manager Joe Zydlo of the American Red Cross of Arkansas work to spread the word about the critical blood need in Arkansas and nationwide. They encourage health care professionals to start blood drives and educate the public about the benefits of donating blood.

A Collaborative Solution to Blood Donation

In 2018, the American Red Cross and Our Blood Institute (OBI, formerly Arkansas Blood Institute) formed an operational alignment to serve blood donors and blood drive sponsors in Central and South Arkansas. The Red Cross determined that the Central Arkansas market is too small to sustain the infrastructure needed to support two blood collection organizations. With challenging economic conditions across the blood industry, the Red Cross developed a collaborative solution with the Our Blood Institute that more efficiently and effectively utilizes blood centers and community resources in the Central Arkansas market to best serve patient needs.

To avoid transporting blood across several states, blood banks collect in regions, each consisting of contiguous states. Arkansas, Missouri, and parts of Illinois make up one of the Red Cross’s collection regions. The Red Cross can transport blood from anywhere in this region to local hospitals or to communities recovering from disasters, such as floods or tornadoes. Hospitals in the region have priority for units of blood collected by the Red Cross, but once the hospitals’ needs have been met, the blood can go anywhere it needs to go from the regional and national reserves. Most of the blood collected at either organization is collected through blood drives in the community, at someone’s corporation, or even at a local hospital.

OBI is a non-profit blood center whose volunteer donors provide blood needed by patients in more than 30 hospitals statewide. 25 counties in the north and southeast parts of the state collect blood through the Red Cross. The remaining counties in South and Central Arkansas continue to collect blood through OBI or other blood banks. OBI has five donor centers providing blood products for patients in over 40 Arkansas hospitals, medical facilities, and air ambulances. OBI has donor centers in Ft. Smith, Hot Springs, Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Russellville. The Red Cross primarily collects blood through mobile blood drives. “We work really well together, and we’re all trying to meet the same goal of making sure that patients have enough blood,” Lori says. “We’re just trying to make sure we can help the community and serve them as best we can,” Joe adds.

Blood Donation Process

OBI collects blood at their donation centers. OBI also has the ability to collect platelets at this site, as well as blood for patients who need special donor matches, like those with sickle cell anemia. Donors would come in once a week to donate blood if they were a specific match to a patient with sickle cell anemia. Once units of blood are collected at donor centers, they are placed into an apheresis machine, which separates the blood into three parts: platelets, red blood cells, and plasma. Donors would have the plasma and red blood cells pumped back into their arm, and OBI would collect the platelets for patients who need them. Apheresis machines are too big to be moved to mobile blood drives, so the Red Cross only collects whole blood donations without separating it into its respective parts.

Whole Blood DonorWhole blood is the most flexible type of donation. "Whole blood" is the blood that flows through your veins, containing red blood cells, white blood cells, and plasma. Whole blood can be collected in its original form or separated into its parts for those that need them.

Every Day is a Good Day to Give Blood

People often only think about giving blood when disaster strikes. “In reality,” Lori says, “we need blood on the shelves at all times. When something big happens, of course, it’s great for people to give blood, but that’s actually not the time we needed them to give. We needed them to give a week ago.” Donors can give blood every 56 days (once every eight weeks, up to six times per year), and platelets can be donated every seven days (up to 24 times per year). “We also have, what we call ‘power red’ or double-red blood donations,” Joe says. “That’s two units of blood collected in one sitting from people with the O-blood type at fixed sites and mobile blood drives.” Double-red donations can be done every 112 days (3 times per year).

Power Red DonorPower red donations, seen above, are when donors with O-type blood donate two units in one sitting. Power red donations can be done three times per year (every 112 days).

It takes around two to three days for collected blood to be tested, prepared, and shipped to a local hospital. Even with the quick turnaround, Lori says it’s critical that people donate whenever they can.

Joe adds. “A lot of times, the donations are going out faster than they are coming in, and that’s an issue.” The Red Cross also works with Air Evac Lifeteam. They have helicopters that take blood products and deliver them throughout the state quicker than standard shipping procedures, making air evacs more optimal for emergencies.

There is no specific place where blood is needed more than others. Blood can be transported anywhere. “Thank goodness for that,” Lori says, “because a certain state may not have enough blood that they need, or a recipient may require a rare blood type, and it can be shipped anywhere in the country.”

A Critical Need

Every two seconds in the U.S., someone needs blood. The need is always constant. While only 38% of the population are eligible to give blood, about 3% of eligible donors will roll up their sleeves. “If we were able to double or triple that percentage and get 6-9% of the eligible population to donate, there would not be any blood shortages. We wouldn’t have to worry about that,” Joe says. It’s all about donor retention.

Increasing donor retention includes promoting blood donations and educating the public to dispel any myths people may have that make them reluctant to donate. “Most people either haven’t thought about it, haven’t been asked to do it, or they fear the process,” Lori explains. Giving blood is a relatively painless process, and it only takes about 5 to 10 minutes to donate a unit of blood. One unit of blood can save multiple people’s lives. “Donating blood is safe and essential to saving people’s lives,” Lori says.

Red Cross DonorOnly 38% of the population is eligible to give blood. Out of those eligible, only 3% will actually donate. If we could double or triple that number, Arkansas would not face any blood shortages.

We Need All Blood Types

“Somebody somewhere in this country needs your blood type,” Lori says. While all blood types are needed, O-negative is the universal type. Anyone can receive O-negative blood. “When there’s a trauma situation and the paramedics come out to a car accident, for example,” Joe says, “they’re not going to know a person’s blood type. They will reach for the O-negative blood that they have on hand if they have to transfuse blood at the scene before they go to the hospital. That’s why O-negative blood is so important: it can go to anybody.”

After an hour at the blood bank, a person will have donated one bag of blood. One bag of blood has the potential to save multiple people’s lives. “People may think, ‘If I don’t give blood, somebody else will,’ or ‘Someone is going to need multiple units of blood and all I’m giving them is one bag/unit, so what’s the point?’ That one bag of blood could potentially help save multiple people, and that’s what’s important,” Lori says. Possibly three people, one who needs red blood cells, one who needs plasma, and one who needs platelets, could benefit from one bag.

How Providers Can Get Involved

If providers or health care professionals are in a clinic or hospital that is not currently hosting a blood drive, Lori recommends starting one. “The most natural place to go to give blood is the hospital or your host medical clinic,” she says. If you’re in a small community and you only have a few employees, and hosting a blood drive doesn’t seem like a viable option, Lori also recommends working with local faith-based organizations or community centers to host a blood drive on their campus. “Be the person to make a blood drive happen in your community,” she says. “Being a health care provider, you’re already trusted in that realm, so be a blood drive sponsor and help us get a blood drive in your community.” And, of course, providers can also donate blood themselves. The Red Cross’s website has plenty of materials, including flyers, posters, and handouts that providers can hang in the waiting room for patients to see.

Do Your Part

Patients urgently needing blood cannot wait. “It is imperative that we have a matching blood type on the shelf, processed, and ready to be used,” Lori adds. The Red Cross, OBI, and hospitals across Arkansas ask that providers and patients both help tackle the need for blood and platelet donations by rolling up a sleeve and encouraging their friends and family to do the same. If you are eligible to give blood and are feeling well, take the time to make an appointment to donate blood by contacting the American Red Cross, OBI, or another local blood bank.

All images courtesy of Joe Zydlo, American Red Cross of Arkansas

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