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Walking Blood Banks

By Scott Hamilton, MD
February 9, 2022
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

Early in human history, people saw that losing blood from battle or childbirth was life-threatening. In the 1600s doctors tried transfusing blood from donors. Sometimes it worked, but often patients had fatal reactions. Other experiments: sheep’s blood transfusions occasionally seemed to help, and briefly in the 1800s, milk! Finally, in the early 20th century, the discovery of blood typing made transfusions much safer and lives began to be saved.

In the 1920s, preserving blood was difficult. The best blood banks were people—transfusing straight from donor arms into the arms of patients. Hospitals had lists of volunteers available by phone. When called, day or night, the donor would hop out of bed and head to the hospital to save a life. In 1940, as World War II began, this “walking blood bank” system was inadequate. Industrial techniques - anti-coagulants, preservatives and refrigeration - were developed to meet the massive need.

Even with modern blood storage, the basic source is still the same: you and me. There aren’t yet artificial fluids as good as the real red stuff. We’ve always needed it for patients with bad injuries or pregnancy complications. In the past 40 years, as we’ve learned ways to treat cancers, premature babies and kids with sickle cell disease, we’ve needed even more blood for those patients. 

During WWII blood donation was robust; everyone wanted to help. In quieter peacetime, people forget. Donations have been down in recent years, and was zapped even worse by COVID, with cancelled blood drives and people staying home. Now supplies are critically low, and everyone needs to give. In honor of January as Blood Donor Month, the Vitalant blood center on Bertrand Drive will draw four donors to win $5000 each! So go donate, get free snacks and earn a chance to win big. Oh, and you’ll save lives, too.

As discussed above, war gets everyone donating blood; but most transfusion stories these days go unheard. Like when an eight-year-old girl crashed her bike. When she got to us, she complained that she couldn’t see. But, when lying flat on the bed, she could see again! A quarter-sized bruise on her belly revealed her diagnosis: the classic “handlebar-spear-injury.” Sometimes when falling off bikes, kids get speared in the gut by the handlebars, tearing internal organs. As she bled internally, the girl got pale. When she stood up, blood loss caused poor brain perfusion. Thus, her inability to see while upright, as she’s fainting. I ordered a transfusion and called a surgeon to take her to the OR.

A transfusion kept that girl alive until she reached the operating table. As discussed last week, blood saves lots of other kids, too. Children with cancer need blood products throughout their treatments. Premature babies in the NICU sometimes need transfusions. And kids with Sickle Cell Anemia often need blood—sometimes even monthly transfusions to prevent bad complications like strokes.

Blood donations have been down in recent years. In good times, people get complacent. They neglect doing things for their communities. Some blame the latest generations for slacker attitudes towards public service. Then came COVID: blood drives cancelled, people staying home. Blood supplies plummeted.

Now blood banks and hospitals have critical shortages. We’re biting our nails wondering when a patient will desperately need blood, and there’ll be none to give. Everyone needs to visit Vitalant, the blood bank on Bertrand Drive. January is National Blood Donor Month and the beginning of Vitalant’s Kindness Starts Here campaign. To celebrate, four donors in January will win a drawing for $5000 each! It only takes about an hour, less if you make an appointment and there are free snacks and drinks. Oh, and you’ll save some lives, too.

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