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Blood Donation: Good Science and Goodwill Team Up to Save Lives

Terri L. Craddock, MBA, MLS(ASCP), HP, is the senior director of Inova Blood Donor Services.

Every 2 seconds, someone in the U.S. needs donated blood. But we don’t often stop to think about what it takes to make sure our hospitals are stocked with a blood supply that is safe and ready when patients need it.

You never know when you or a loved one might need a blood transfusion to stay well. Our blood supply relies on good science — and goodwill.

Blood Testing 

After you donate blood, you roll down your sleeve and head home. But your blood’s journey is just beginning. We test a sample from every unit of donated blood to check for diseases that can be spread through the blood supply.

Thirty years ago, we only performed 3 or 4 tests on donated blood. But the science is always evolving. Today, we perform a dozen lab tests on every unit of donated blood.

Those include tests to determine the blood type, since blood recipients must receive matching types when they get a transfusion. Many other tests look for infectious diseases that can spread through the blood supply, such as HIV and hepatitis.

We continue to add more tests as new threats emerge. In 2016, we began testing for Zika virus. There’s no evidence Zika has ever been spread through donated blood — and we want to keep it that way. Starting next year, we have plans to add a test for babesia, a parasitic infection spread by ticks.

Donors in Demand

It takes about 8 hours to run all the tests on a blood sample. Fewer than 1% of the donations we receive test positive for disease. Those that do test positive are removed from the blood supply, and we notify the donor of their test results.

Donated blood that gets the all-clear is processed into different products. Some is packaged as whole blood. Some is separated into its components: Red cells, plasma and platelets, which are each used to treat different types of patients.

Once those products land on hospital shelves, they don’t stay there for long. The blood supply is precarious, and we need every drop we can get.

Some blood types are in especially high demand. Type O negative blood is the only type that can be given to patients with any blood type. It’s especially important in emergency medicine, when a patient might need a blood transfusion before doctors can determine his or her blood type. But only 7% of people in the U.S. have O negative blood, so there is rarely enough to go around.

Blood Transfusions for Cancer Treatment

Emergencies aren’t the only reasons someone might need a blood transfusion. Heart patients and surgery patients often require donor blood, too. But blood products are most often used to treat cancer patients.

Take Drew, for example. This 7-year-old Inova patient was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the spring of 2018. During his treatment, he’s had more than 20 blood transfusions. Some of those transfusions include intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg). Made from blood plasma, IVIG contains antibodies that help the body fight disease. Without these transfusions, Drew is more vulnerable to life-threatening infections.

Over the past year, his family has hosted “Drew Strikes Back” blood drives across northern Virginia. Their friends and family have come together to support Drew and collect enough blood to treat 350 patients — and counting.

Where to Donate Blood

Modern medicine is remarkable. But one thing scientists haven’t yet figured out how to do is to make a blood substitute.

We rely on volunteer donors like Drew’s family and friends to stock our hospitals with blood for every patient who needs it. Without that blood, many trauma patients wouldn’t ever make it to the operating room. Cancer patients might not make it through chemotherapy.

Only 38% of the population is eligible to donate. What’s more, only 5% of eligible donors take the time to give blood.

Donating a unit of blood takes about an hour, and most of that time is spent on screening and paperwork. The procedure itself usually takes less than 10 minutes. But it’s time well spent: A single blood donation can save up to 3 lives. (Not bad for an hour of your time.)

In the Washington, D.C. area, we need 200 blood donors a day to meet the needs of patients in our region. Ready to become one of them? Learn whether you’re eligible to donate blood, and book your appointment with Inova Blood Donor Services.

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