There was an outpouring of support when Betsy Engle’s brother needed blood.
Now the 34-year-old finds herself in a donation chair regularly, paying it forward to others who need the same.
“I’ll do anything I can to help contribute to that need,” she said.
“It’s not really in your conscience until you need it or somebody you care about needs it,” said Matt Taggert, the assistant donor care supervisor for United Blood Services.
Engle was one of dozens who visited Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church last week to contribute to the community blood drive, a regular event hosted by United Blood Services. The two-day drive typically collects between 130 and 200 units of blood, roughly equivalent to a pint apiece, some of which comes back to the community by way of transfusions at St. John’s Medical Center.
Phlebotomist Jenna Smith hears a lot of stories like Engle’s. Donation centers tend to attract people who know someone who needed a life-saving transfusion or those who have received one themselves.
“People tell me, ‘I’m donating every bit of it back,’” Smith said.
Forty thousand pints of blood are needed every day in the United States, with a new need every two seconds.
Blood delivers nutrients and oxygen to cells and transports metabolic waste out. Because blood can’t be artificially made and there’s no substitute for it, donors are the only source for patients who need it.
Taggert estimated that he and his team visit Jackson about every two months. Donors can typically donate a pint of whole blood every eight weeks. Red blood cells take 56 days to regenerate. Plasma and platelets take longer.
“Your body takes time to regenerate those missing components,” he said.
Donors are typically presented with two donation routes. One is a whole blood donation, the most common type, which draws a pint of blood from a donor. The other is an automated machine donation, also known as a “double red” or a “power red,” which results in two pints of donated red blood cells.
Whole blood donations are separated into two components: platelets and red blood cells. They can also be separated into white blood cells and plasma.
A “double red” donation, also known as apheresis, is a two-part process. Blood drawn from a donor is separated in a centrifuge into red blood cells and plasma. The plasma and platelets, and typically another fluid like saline, are transfused back into the donor. The process produces two identical pints of red blood cells, which is helpful because there are always variations between donors, even with the same blood type.
“That lessens the chance of complications during a transfusion for a recipient,” Taggert said.
Automated donations are also a common way to give platelets, cells in high demand for patients with leukemia and other forms of cancer and blood disorders. Because platelets assist with clotting, they’re also vital for patients undergoing open-heart surgery or receiving bone marrow or organ transplants.
Quick donation, quick use
The blood donation is quick, less than 10 minutes. The automated machine donation takes a little bit longer, clocking in at around 25 minutes.
Little touches, like a cold pack behind the neck or a bag of Cheetos or Doritos — regulars have their favorite salty snack — make the experience more comfortable. Though snacks are always on hand, donors are asked to arrive well hydrated and well fed.
Unlike having blood drawn for a health panel, donating blood does not require fasting, nor is it encouraged.
“Eat steak, potatoes, chicken, salad — you name it,” Taggert said. “Have a nice hearty meal. We want our donors to beef up on iron and salt. It minimizes discomfort, and we don’t want you to have a negative experience. We’re here saving lives, not facilitating a healthy eating experience.”
Lots of nonalcoholic fluids are also encouraged, before and after donation.
Once collected, the blood is quickly moved to the company’s lab in Billings, Montana. Blood donations do expire, in a sense. Outside the body, platelets can be stored for five days and red blood cells for 42.
The team is “constantly peeling techs off” to take blood back to Billings, a seven- to eight-hour drive, to begin processing, Taggert said. The team covers eastern Montana and most of Wyoming, and Jackson is about as far south as it travels for blood donations.
During the two-day blood drive, typically held on Wednesday and Thursday, blood donated on a Wednesday is driven north that night. Some technicians stick around to collect donations Thursday morning before heading back to Montana themselves.
Blood is separated into usable components and made ready for transfusion. Three sample tubes of donor blood are sent to an Arizona lab where they are tested for every blood-borne disease deemed important — HIV, West Nile Virus and hepatitis viruses, for example.
The “U.S. blood supply is safer than it has ever been,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “However, any blood-borne pathogen has the potential to be transmitted by blood transfusion.”
Donors are also screened through a standard questionnaire, which also reduces the risk of an infectious organism being transmitted by blood transfusion. Once blood is deemed safe to give, United Blood Services interfaces between the lab and the hospital in need of a transfusion.
The donation collection team is like a traveling band, always on the road, but toting around less merchandise. It takes about 30 to 40 minutes to set up a mobile blood drive clinic, and occasionally the team is setting up and breaking down in a day.
“This is one of those blood drives where your head is spinning, but in a very good way,” Taggert said. Visiting places over and over again helps them understand the “pulse” of these communities, he said.
“During calving season, we’ll see fewer donations in some towns,” Taggert said. “As much as they like to help humans, they’ve got a livelihood to maintain.”
When possible, United Blood Services likes to keep blood circulating in the community from which it came.
In the past, Taggert said, some blood has ended up being given to patients at St. John’s Medical Center.
“That blood comes back,” Taggert said. “We like to try to do is to keep our blood within the community that gives it. We supply your hospitals.”
Knowing when it’s used
Patient privacy laws, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, prevent donors from knowing the identity of who received their blood. But donors can be alerted via text once their blood has been used. The text usually chimes just a few days after the blood was donated.
“That’s made a huge impact on the donor experience,” Taggert said.
Tracy Logan first donated blood in college, and she admits the inaugural experience wasn’t great. She hadn’t eaten much and wasn’t properly hydrated, causing a common blood donation occurrence: fainting.
If it’s not improper preparation, the fear of the needle prick — typically a large-gauge needle is used for donation, which makes the donation time quicker — can also be a challenge for first-time donors.
“The fear of needles definitely plays a part,” Taggert said. “But we make it out to be far worse than it is. That fear is minimal compared to the experiences those in need of a transfusion are having.”
Most of the donors last Wednesday seemed pretty nonchalant about the needle stuck in their arms. Some, like Engle, said they don’t really mind the poke.
“It’s a pretty minor price to pay for what you’re able to do,” she said.
Logan, who celebrated her 20th donation last week, agreed. With A-positive blood she knows her type is needed.
“I’m proof that you can overcome your fear,” said Logan, 49. “Usually I try to get to the blood drives as much as I can.”
Taggert said, “It’s remarkable to see people overcoming their phobias.”
He started donating blood when he began working for United Blood Services in 2014. Having type O-negative blood, he’s known as the “universal donor” because his blood can be received by people with any other type.
“I felt like I had a moral and social obligation,” Taggert said. “It was time to donate. But it’s not mandatory. We want people who want to donate.”
Gillian Heller, 35, is also a universal donor.
“I try to donate as much as I can,” Heller said. “It’s an easy way to contribute.”
But possibly the best part of the experience, at least for those at last week’s blood drive, is sharing it with others. Shepherd of the Mountain becomes a bit of a social scene during the blood drives.
“I always see the same people,” Logan said.