Donating blood is a tangible way to help people who are struggling with serious health conditions, yet many people may not think about it or make time for it.
In January – which the American Red Cross has dubbed National Blood Donor Month – blood bank supplies are typically among the lowest of the year, as many people have been traveling or busy with the holidays. Inclement weather can also cancel planned blood drives or prevent donors from getting to donation sites.
Gwen Howell, blood bank chief technologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said some people don't donate because they are afraid to be stuck with a needle. Others simply overlook donating, assuming that someone else is doing it, or that their donation may not make much of a difference.
Blood and blood products are necessary for patients who need transfusions after stabbings, gunshot wounds or accidents that land them in the emergency department. They are also used for transplant and cancer patients, premature infants and others.
Donated blood is screened both through a donor questionnaire and personal interview, as well as through specific testing on all units banked.
“We identify any potential risk categories and test for different viral markers,” Howell said. In addition to HIV and Hepatitis C, all blood donated used at Hershey Medical Center is now also tested for the Zika virus.
Most adults can donate blood, with the exception of those who have had cancer or cancer-related surgery within five years, those with severe cardiac conditions and those who have gotten a tattoo in the past year. Donors whose hemoglobin levels indicate anemia may be prevented from donating as well. Seventeen-year-olds can donate blood with parental permission.
Donors can go to the blood donor center at 35 Hope Drive in Hershey weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to register and fill out a questionnaire. Donors are required to read information on what is tested and why before going through a small interview and physical assessment to collect blood pressure, weight and hemoglobin levels.
Then, they relax in a reclining chair and can read, watch TV, chat, or enjoy free snacks and drinks during the 30 minutes it typically takes to donate a unit of blood. Once finished, staff ensure that the donor is not lightheaded and has no negative symptoms before sending them off.
Dr. Melissa George, medical director of the blood bank at the Medical Center, said because the body regenerates donated blood, people can give blood every eight weeks. Platelets – a blood product of high value for those who have blood cancers or need help with their clotting factors – can be donated 24 times in a year, with two weeks between each donation.
Platelet donation can take up to two hours because a machine processes the donor's blood, separating out the platelets and returning the red cells and plasma back to the donor in a closed circuit.
George said many people find blood donation to be a satisfying way to give back.
“A lot of donors say it makes them feel very fulfilled,” she said. “Sometimes there are people who need specific platelets that only some donors have, so those donors feel a sense of pride at being called upon to help.”
(This article was originally published in January, 2017.)
The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.
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