Saving a life takes less than an hour

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ONE HALF HOUR is about all the time it takes to donate blood at University of Chicago Medicine. African Americans are under-represented as donors, but the University of Chicago Medicine’s Blood Ambassadors program hopes to change that. The program offers appointments for blood donation and has private donor rooms in its Duchossois Center at 58th and Maryland. Call (773)702-6247 to schedule an appointment.

By Glenn Reedus

Generally, we think of life-saving moves that involve some heroic or over-the-top fearless action. Such feats are spread over social media, get a lot of television coverage, and sometimes even a parade. The story that rarely gets told is thousands of potential life savers live in the African-American community and don’t even know it.

The University of Chicago Medical Center’s Blood Ambassadors program is out to change that. The ambassadors are encouraging men and women living near the hospital to become blood donors. According to Dr. Chaney Christenson, who heads the UCM blood donor center, minorities, particularly African Americans, tend to be underrepresented as donors. This is despite the fact there is an ongoing pressing need for donations in our community.

University of Chicago Medicine

That is because we historically have kidney-related problems, especially diabetes, and create a high demand for transplants. Those surgeries require a ready supply of blood. The fact that blood banks tend not to pursue donors in the African-American community, Dr. Christenson said, also contributes to the need for more people giving their blood. “We try to encourage African-American donations because we are trying to have more blood supply for the patients, especially those who have sickle cell disease.”

According to the site One Blood, about 70 percent of African Americans have blood types O and B. Those also are the types most in demand. Science and research show that blood that closely matches that of a patient is less like to be rejected by the patient resulting in fewer post-transfusion complications.

African-American donors also are more likely to be a match for the majority of people living in the U.S. who have sickle-cell disease, as these patients need regular blood transfusions.

The issue of the paucity of Black donors is compounded given that only about 40 percent of the entire population is eligible to donate blood. A process call is called deferral. There are permanent and temporary referrals-for instance an HIV-infected person is permanently deferred from donating blood. In some instances, individuals with tattoos may be deferred for 12 months from donating. African Americans also have a higher deferral rate, Christenson said.

Currently the blood donor center is averaging three-six donors per day. “We are trying to reinforce donors can come to the hospital and they don’t have to wait for a blood drive or go to a blood bank,” Christenson added. Anyone wishing to make an appointment to donate blood can call 773-702-6247.

He explained that many potential donors don’t realize how simple the process is. “You get a needle put into your arm, and it takes about 15-20 minutes to fill the bag (that contains the donated blood). Potential donors are interviewed to ensure they haven’t been involved in what are considered high risk activities. “We rely on the patient’s honesty at this point,” Christenson noted.

Aviva Klein, a fourth year University of Chicago neuroscience and biology double major, recently became president of the Blood Ambassadors. She and a handful of other students go into the community and conduct presentations to help people understand, not only the importance of being a donor, as well as the ease in doing so. They also set up blood drives with churches and community organizations.

The Ambassadors use social media, particularly Facebook, to recruit potential donors, as well as spread information and dispel myths about donating blood. The page is Blood Ambassadors.

UCM has donor rooms in its Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine. The ambassadors program is about 15 months old.

Christenson said that many African Americans report having bad experiences with healthcare and it’s challenging to get them to consider donating blood. He added only about 8 percent of people are repeat donors. With a donation lasting only 42 days there is a need for constant replenishment.

A reinforcement of that fact is the reality that 4.5 million Americans will   need a blood transfusion each year, and someone needs blood every two seconds. The UCM website shows approximately one in seven people entering a hospital will need blood.

Another pressing need for donations is evidenced in the fact that some expectant mothers have what’s deemed RH-incompatibility. In those instances, the woman has Rh-negative blood and the fetus has Rh-positive. The mother’s body can develop an immune reaction that jeopardizes the baby’s life. Christenson said about 15 percent of women are RH-negative.

The condition can be reversed through blood donation/transfusion. In Australia, James Harrison is said to have saved more than 2.4 million babies’ lives because his blood contains a rare antibody that neutralizes the RH-negative, thereby making mother and fetus’ blood compatible.

A doctor at the Red Cross Blood Donor Service said some people have this antibody in their blood, but he had never seen it in such a concentration as Harrison has. Harrison donated blood and plasma from the time he was 18 until last year when he turned 81. The 1,172 times he donated is a record-one he said he hopes is broken one day. Even Harrison’s daughter needed his plasma during her pregnancy.

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