Friday, March 21, 2008

Give blood, unless you're me.

The past few days I’ve been seeing a lot of posters for blood drives and hearing a lot of notices on the radio promoting various blood drives around the greater Charleston area and felt a little bit sad. One of the things that I used to pride myself on was that for several years I was a pretty regular blood donor. It was something that I could do on a volunteer basis that helped my community, and it wasn’t a strain on my time or any other resources. At the time I started donating, I wanted to do something to volunteer in the community but lacked a lot of free time to offer up to a volunteer service organization. Donating blood was perfect, since it took less than 2 hours of my time about every 56 days or so. It also helped that I have a blood type that is always in high demand; only about 3% of the population shares my AB+ blood type.

I’d get a call from the local donor center about a week before my due-date for being able to donate again, and I’d go ahead & schedule a donation. On average it was about every 56-60 days that I’d donate. They all knew me there and were always glad to see me and that pint of prime AB positive walk in the door. We used to joke that my blood would be tagged and shipped out so quickly that it would leave the building before I did.

Anyways, that’s all changed, since I’m no longer allowed to donate.

What’s this, you say?

My last time for donating blood was on September 12, 2001. That was the day after the 9-11 attacks. Feeling that I had to do something to help, I lined up with hundreds of people at the old Red Cross donor center in West Ashley and spent a total of ten hours waiting to complete my donation, between the time I stood in line in 90-plus degree heat and the actual donation itself. Not long after that, I heard some disturbing news: I would soon no longer be eligible to donate.

The guidelines for donating blood are simple but pretty restrictive, to ensure the safety of the blood supply. This is perfectly understandable. But imagine my dismay when I learned that one of the new restrictions to be implemented was a ban on donations from people who lived more than 6 months in certain sectors of Europe, like me. This is direct from the American Red Cross website:

You are not eligible to donate if:
From January 1, 1980, through December 31, 1996, you spent (visited or lived) a cumulative time of 3 months or more, in the United Kingdom (UK), or

You were a member of the of the U.S. military, a civilian military employee, or a dependent of a member of the U.S. military who spent a total time of 6 months on or associated with a military base in any of the following areas during the specified time frames

•From 1980 through 1990 - Belgium, the Netherlands (Holland), or Germany
•From 1980 through 1996 - Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Italy or Greece.

You spent (visited or lived) a cumulative time of 5 years or more from January 1, 1980, to present, in any combination of country(ies) in Europe, including

•in the UK from 1980 through 1996
•on or associated with military bases as described above, and in other countries in Europe as listed below:

o Albania
o Austria
o Montenegro (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)
o Belgium
o Bosnia/Herzegovina
o Bulgaria
o Croatia
o Norway
o Poland
o Czech Republic
o Denmark
o Romania
o Finland
o France
o Slovak Republic (Slovakia)
o Germany
o Greece
o Spain
o Hungary
o Ireland (Republic of)
o Italy
o Kosovo (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)
o Liechtenstein
o Luxembourg
o Macedonia
o Netherlands (Holland)
o Portugal
o Serbia (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)
o Slovenia
o Sweden
o Switzerland
o Turkey
o Yugoslavia (Federal Republic includes Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia)

But why are we excluded? Because the ARC is concerned that we may be carriers for vCJD, Variant Cruetzfeld-Jakob Disease, or Mad Cow. Not sure what Mad Cow Disease is? Google it.

So, my last donation was over 6 ½ years ago and there is no sign that the exclusion will ever be lifted. Never mind the fact that I did all my donating after returning from my two years in Germany with the US Army (1988-1990) and that I had donated a couple gallons of blood to the blood supply. My five tattoos carry less weight as an exclusion than does my service overseas. If I had donated every 60 days during the last 6 ½ years, I would have donated an additional 39 times. Thirty nine pints is almost 5 gallons of AB+ that wasn’t available for people who desperately needed it. And since about 1 in 7 people entering the hospital need blood, with about 43,000 pints of blood being used each day through the US and Canada, I shudder to think about the people I wasn’t able to help because of my exclusion.

I understand the reasoning for exclusionary rules. The ARC needs to safeguard the available blood supply. Statistics show that only 37% of the general population is even eligible to donate and that only 10% or so actually donates, so every donation is precious. But jeez, what about the dozens of people who received the blood I had already donated in the eleven years since I had returned from Germany to when I was excluded? A little late now, is it not?

One of the things that I noticed while in the donor centers and talking to my fellow donors was that a rather large percentage of us were military veterans. There’s just something about a veteran that’s hard wired into the circuits that says, “I should donate to help my fellow man.” We served the country and continued to find a way to be of service until being cut off from doing so. That exclusion for vCJD cuts a pretty wide swath by excluding millions and millions of potential donors who were stationed overseas with the military throughout their terms of service. Additionally, I’ve become aware that the ARC is excluding veterans of the first Gulf War and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately there is currently no way to test donated blood for vCJD so there’s no end in sight yet for my exclusion. Perhaps they can develop a test for the donors themselves to see if we are carriers?

For the rest of you who are eligible, I urge you all to seriously consider donating. It’s painless and only takes about 90 minutes. You even get some tasty snacks afterwards. Regardless of your blood type, it’s needed. The rarest blood type is the one that’s not on the shelf when a patient needs it.

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