I recently learned firsthand the importance of donating blood when I had to have an emergency transfusion after the birth of my daughter.
The United States is suddenly facing a severe blood shortage amid the cancellation of tens of thousands of blood drives due to the coronavirus.
Healthy, eligible Americans can still give blood at donation centers across the country. Those who do are performing a critical civic duty, and making a real difference at a time when so many feel helpless.
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Four weeks ago, the delivery of my daughter turned nightmarish when I started to bleed in the recovery room. I was just beginning to get my bearings following an unplanned cesarean section when I felt a gush of blood, and then another. In an unusual complication, my uterus failed to contract.
In minutes, I was surrounded by a growing team of doctors and nurses who tried everything they could to stop the bleeding. After drugs and other various interventions failed to work, it was clear that I would need a blood transfusion.
It was the scariest moment of my life. I remember calling for my mom, who was by my side the whole time, and picturing my two-year-old son at home. I saw the color drain from my husband's face as he stood outside the gaggle of doctors.
But thanks to the efforts of an incredible medical team and five liters of donated O-positive blood, I survived and was able to hold my newborn baby the following day.
Now the US is facing a severe blood shortage because of the coronavirus pandemic
The experience opened my eyes to the importance of donating blood. As one of my anesthesiologists told me days later, blood donation is one of the most important civic duties we can perform, even in normal times.
Blood is perishable, and a blood bank's supply must constantly be replenished. While it is not used to treat the coronavirus, blood is a critical resource for cancer patients, accident victims undergoing emergency surgery, new mothers and newborns, and others.
As of Thursday, more than 12,000 blood drives had been canceled across the US, resulting in 355,000 fewer donations than expected, according to America's Blood Centers, which represents both the Red Cross and independent blood centers. Blood drives supply the vast majority of donated blood in the US.
"I am looking at the refrigerator that contains only one day's supply of blood for the hospital," Dr. Robertson Davenport, director of Transfusion Medicine at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, said in a statement from the Red Cross. "The hospital is full. There are patients who need blood and cannot wait."
New York Blood Center and its operating divisions, which serve around 75 million Americans — and supplied my transfusion — lost around 75% of its blood supply when schools and other institutions shuttered due to the virus, the organization said.
Healthy, eligible Americans can still safely donate blood
America's blood banks are taking a range of precautions to keep donors safe from the coronavirus.
The Red Cross, which supplies around 40% of donated blood in the US, is checking temperatures of donors and staff before they enter a facility. They are increasing their already-robust disinfection process and spacing beds for social distancing where possible.
The Surgeon General, Centers for Disease Control, and Food and Drug Administration have urged people to continue donating as the crisis unfolds.
"One thing we should all consider, especially millennials and Gen Z, is donating blood," Surgeon General Jerome Adams said at a press conference this week. "Donated blood is an essential part of caring for patients, and one donation can save up to three lives."
Blood donation centers around the country are expanding hours and enacting similar precautions.
The good news is that most people in good health can donate blood. In most places, potential donors must be 17 or older (16 with parental consent in some states), weigh 110 or more pounds, and be generally healthy. People with symptoms of COVID-19, or those who have been in contact with confirmed or suspected cases, should not donate or visit a donation center (or anywhere else, for that matter).
It takes an hour — or less — to donate. I found three non-hospital donation locations a (healthy) walk from my Manhattan apartment.
If, like me, you're sitting at home anxiously reading the news and feeling helpless, blood donation is an actionable way to make a difference.
You can find a local blood donation center and schedule an appointment here.