[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
- A robust blood supply is vital for many patients with chronic conditions or diseases and for emergency care.
- One blood donation can produce several different blood products with unique uses and patient benefits.
- Blood supplies in the region are critically low. Donate in honor of National Blood Donor Month throughout January.
- A Swedish expert explains the importance of blood donations and the real-life consequences for many patients when blood supplies run dangerously low.
Saving lives is not just for superheroes. And it doesn’t require leaping tall buildings, X-ray vision or a cape. Sometimes, it's as simple as becoming a blood donor.
Donating blood is one of the most effective – and easiest – things you can do to help save lives. Every two seconds, someone in the United States needs blood, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
January is National Blood Donor Month and blood supplies in the region are critically low, according to Bloodworks Northwest. The company provides blood supply to 95% of hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, including Swedish. They recently issued a Code Red Emergency, indicating a severe blood shortage in the area and urging the community to donate.
Robert Weinsheimer, M.D., director of Swedish Pediatric Surgical Services, explains who uses donated blood and what a shortage could mean for people needing care.
Who needs donated blood?
“A wide range of patients uses donated blood,” says Dr. Weinsheimer. “There are the classic emergencies from traumas, like motor vehicle collisions. There is also what we call penetrating trauma which includes things like gunshot wounds and stabbings. Those kinds of traumatic injury-related needs for blood are a big component of where the blood goes.”
“But there are all sorts of other areas of medicine that rely on donated blood. There are folks with bleeding disorders like hemophilia or sickle cell disease who have a tendency to bleed. For organ transplantation, it is very, very common for a lot of blood products to be needed. Other blood vessel-related surgeries, called vascular surgery, and other types of surgery often require donated blood. Cancer patients receive therapies that intentionally knock down their ability to make their own supply of the various components of blood. Chemotherapy often compromises a patient’s ability to make all those different cells and components of blood. They often need to have those things replaced,” he adds.
“If children are in car accidents, they certainly can need blood for that reason. In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the intensive care unit for little babies, most of whom are premature, their ability to make the various parts of blood can be quite compromised. Because they are so small, any blood loss can be quite significant. Premature babies often cannot form blood clots very well, so they have a high risk of bleeding-related issues. Using platelets and plasma components, which have different clotting factors, is really important for our patients,” explains Dr. Weinsheimer.
“More recently, there have been donations of different components of blood that have immune fighting factors to help fight certain sorts of infections. There is a huge range of things that in 2023, we’re able to treat because we have blood available,” he says.
Every drop has a purpose
Blood products have a wide variety of uses beyond whole blood transfusions, according to Dr. Weinsheimer.
“We think of donating blood and then we think of that whole blood going to one patient. In reality, we donate blood that is processed in a way that can benefit several different patients. And the various components of blood are used to help in different situations,” he explains.
Several different types of blood products can be donated. Each has unique applications. The most common are:
- Whole blood is the blood in your veins. It may be used to replace blood lost during surgery or after a trauma.
- Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout your body. When separated from whole blood, they can help treat anemia.
- Platelets affect your blood’s ability to clot. They are often given to people undergoing organ transplant surgery or cancer patients.
- Plasma is the fluid in your blood. It’s used in numerous treatments for a variety of diseases and conditions.
The importance of a robust blood supply
“Having available supplies of blood is essential to the care of all types of patients. In my work as a pediatric surgeon, we work with premature infants in critical condition. The ability to administer immediate and safe blood products is a key component to the comprehensive treatments needed to support these fragile babies through difficult times,” says Dr. Weinsheimer. “I’m sure other physicians would say the same about their patients’ need for donated blood.”
“Limited blood supply directly impacts the care we are able to provide. With a healthy supply, we can offer emergent care for trauma, transplantation, cancer care and intensive care for all ages of patients. With limits in supply, we are forced to limit the scope of care we can provide. This would mean decreasing the volume and diversity of care we can provide, saving the available blood for the most critical of patients and possibly delaying the urgent care we provide,” he adds.
“It’s important to have a sufficient and well-stocked reserve of blood because you never know when emergencies will come up,” he explains. “And it literally is one of the life-saving tools that we have to help treat patients.”
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.