What’s Blood Got To Do With It?


How essential is blood in times of crisis—and beyond?

In June 2012, the American Red Cross blood supply hit a 15-year low with 50,000 fewer donations than expected. In the seven months to follow, Hurricane Isaac rocked the Caribbean and the northern Gulf Coast; Superstorm Sandy resulted in an estimated $65.6 billion in losses due to damage and business interruption; and eight mass shootings in the U.S. flipped the world as we know it upside down.

While the blood supply has since increased, largely because of a countrywide appeal for donations, “we’re not in great shape,” says Hanna Malak, a Red Cross donor recruitment associate. “There’s a constant need for blood.”

Red Cross, which supplies about 40 percent of blood in the U.S., strives to maintain a five-day inventory nationally, so that if disaster does strike, and there is no power, we have five days’ worth of blood. It sounds easy enough, until you consider a few complications that impede its efforts. First, whole blood lasts only 42 days. Second, during the summer, schools aren’t in session, which means they’re unavailable for blood drives. Third, during the winter, vacation, illness, busy schedules and inclement weather prevent blood drives from happening and regular donors from giving. And fourth, “38 percent of the population nationally is eligible to donate, but only 5 percent do,” says Malak.

Since there is no substitute for blood, those with cancer and other diseases, premature babies, organ transplant recipients, and accident and trauma victims are extremely vulnerable when the national blood supply reaches emergency levels. And considering it takes about 48 hours to test and process collected blood—donations are tested for 14 different diseases—it must be on hospital shelves before it’s needed in order to help save lives.

In Santa Cruz County, we’re particularly at risk since we’re geographically isolated, with only two highways, mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. In addition, only “2 to 3 percent” of the population in Northern California donates blood, so blood has to be imported to the area from other regions, according to Malak.

cover WarriorsBloodDriveIn an effort to improve our local disaster preparedness, Red Cross has established a new staging site in Watsonville, so that a truck filled with blood drive essentials—tables, medical equipment, computers, beds, water and snacks—can be based locally and have easier access to the Monterey Bay area. In addition, the Santa Cruz County Chapter—which has been collecting blood since the 1950s—has increased the number of blood drives locally.

During the month of January, also known as National Blood Donor Month, Red Cross held a slew of local blood drives to get the community enthused about donating, featuring the Santa Cruz police and fire departments, the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, and more. Throughout the month of February, there will be even more opportunities to donate all over the county.

“It’s great; everyone wants to give in this community,” says Malak. In 2012 alone, there were 121 blood drives held in Santa Cruz County, which resulted in 4,867 units of life-saving blood, or roughly 578 gallons. “You go to other cities and you’ll maybe do one high school drive and one community drive. And it’s like every couple of days we’re having another drive in Santa Cruz,” he adds.

For mid-county resident Lorraine Jacobs, 55, the decision to donate four times per year on average since age 18 is an easy one. “I don’t remember what drew me in when we had our high school blood drive,” she says. “I understood, on some level, the need for there to be a safe blood supply for folks who may need it. I’d had experience with relatives being sick and needing transfusions. I studied biology in college. All of this contributed to a better understanding of our ability to save lives with a safe and available supply of blood.”

To date, Jacobs has donated 43 pints of blood. Her commitment to donating has become more meaningful over time, since finding out that a close friend is living with a life-threatening blood disorder, and losing another friend to leukemia. “I feel good about being able to donate blood,” she says. “Not everyone is able to give blood. It’s a great feeling to know my blood may be what helps a person survive a life-threatening situation or surgery.”

With so many blood drives nearby and the ability to easily schedule an appointment online, Jacobs says she finds the whole process to be painless. “The staff and volunteers at the drives are friendly and I usually see people I know at the drive,” she says. Plus, “the time passes quickly.”

According to the Red Cross, donating blood is one of the best ways to make a difference when disaster strikes, and, most importantly, throughout the year, in preparation for whatever is to come.

When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in October, and 380 blood drives in 13 states and the District of Columbia were cancelled, resulting in a shortfall of more than 12,800 units of blood and platelets, the Red Cross saw a tremendous response from people across the country wanting to hold blood drives and donate blood. “That’s good and bad,” says Malak. “It’s great because people are donating blood, but blood only lasts 42 days.” When the blood supply exceeds the need, it goes to waste. In order to ensure that doesn’t happen, the Red Cross is currently working to spread out its drives and educate the community about the year-round demand for blood.

cover TheFrenchFam“I don’t think people realize how easy of a contribution [blood] is,” says Sandy French, a local retired deputy fire marshal and proud blood donor. She and her husband Joe saw the need and the impact of donations first-hand, when they, along with 72 other Santa Cruz County Red Cross volunteers, were deployed to the East Coast during Superstorm Sandy.

Rather than spend time with friends and family, the couple chose to spend Dec. 20, 2012-Jan. 3, 2013 in New York, where many people continued to go without utilities and hot meals. “We figured less people would be willing to go help during the holidays,” says French. Together, they drove an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) and brought hundreds of meals each day, including Christmas and New Year’s dinner to various neighborhoods in need. “For us, we feel like this is our way of giving,” she adds.

“When you’re on a deployment and working directly with clients, it can be a little bit of a heartbreaking experience—actually, that’s an understatement,” says Rebecca Linn, an AmeriCorps member and volunteer at Red Cross Santa Cruz County, who was also sent to New York to help with the relief effort. “You’re working with people who have completely lost all of their personal possessions; they’re displaced; they’re staying in a shelter. It’s not their home, even though we try as best we can to make shelters feel as much their home as possible. It was a very rewarding experience, but it’s also very heartbreaking.”

Santa Cruz County may be the second smallest county in California geographically, but there is something to be said about the fact that of the 200 Red Cross volunteers deployed to Superstorm Sandy from the San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Monterey and Santa Cruz regions, 74 of them were local. Malak attributes the community’s willingness to help to the “close-knit feel” among neighbors and dedication to taking action.

“In the Bay Area, everyone’s really busy and everything is so fast-paced,” he explains. “Here it’s so much more of a community—you can just feel it and see it.”

While most people do not have the ability to volunteer at an actual disaster site, the young and old may be eligible to donate blood, so long as they meet the minimum age (16 with parental consent) and weight requirement (at least 110 pounds based on height), and are in generally good health.

According to the Red Cross, every type of blood is needed, but the most rare is AB, and the universal blood type is O Negative, which can be transfused to any blood type. “We call it liquid gold,” Malak says, with a laugh.

Those who do not qualify to donate blood can assist the Red Cross—96 percent of which is made up of volunteers—in a number of other ways, from the blood services side to disaster relief.

Camilla Boolootian, development manager at Red Cross Santa Cruz County, was reminded of the many opportunities to do meaningful work when she was deployed to New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy to assist with Red Cross chapters that were inundated with phone calls, donations, and more.

“The challenging thing was that the people I was going over there to support had been affected,” says Boolootian. “They had lost their homes or were dealing with flood issues, but they still had to come to work. So they were very stressed and not sleeping and some were without power.”

cover SCCRedCrossVolunteersSince returning from the East Coast, Boolootian and Linn have teamed up to educate and prepare Santa Cruz County for the possibility of a future disaster in the area.

“What happens in California is we get very complacent,” says Boolootian. “We really haven’t had any major disasters recently, so we don’t always have all the items on our check list and we aren’t prepared. We’re vulnerable in Santa Cruz County because we have Highway 17 and Highway 1, and if anything happens, we’re stuck. So we need to be prepared.”

Part of the effort to become more organized locally is an initiative entitled “Prepare Santa Cruz,” for which Red Cross Santa Cruz County has been meeting with local mobile home parks and other vulnerable communities, including migrant farm workers and the elderly, and practicing disaster drills. “When we have a drill, [people] realize how important it is to help their neighbor,” says Boolootian. “We saw with Hurricane Sandy that although people were not in a shelter, they were sheltered at home without power. Red Cross would come by in trucks and deliver food and water, but those resources don’t get to you right away. It really takes being prepared so that you can be self-sustaining.”

Neighborhoods that are interested in having the Red Cross come out and assess different needs, as well as educate for disaster preparedness, can call the Santa Cruz County chapter and put in a request. In addition, the Red Cross offers free disaster classes.

“When I was in New Jersey, I drove by the ocean and their boardwalk was gone,” recalls Boolootian. “Granted, we don’t have hurricanes, but we do have tsunamis. To think that the [Santa Cruz] harbor had some $30 million worth of damage when the tsunami hit [in March 2011], and that only affected one small part of the community—it just shows that even a little disaster can be really costly.”

Rita Chick, chief executive officer of Red Cross Santa Cruz County, says she is confident in her chapter’s ability to serve the community in its time of need after witnessing a number of locals come forward to take classes and volunteer during Superstorm Sandy. 

“When we have our own disaster, we now have so many more new volunteers, besides those who have been around for a long time, ready to help,” says Chick. “We feel really good about our new team.”

Still, more volunteers and regular blood donors in particular are always needed.

“I would love to see all people try to donate blood,” says Jacobs.“In the event of a major disaster in our area, we will need donors to step forward. It benefits our community and our neighbors to have blood donors in the system and ready to respond if needed in an emergency. People should donate so our area is more prepared to handle a large disaster in the future.”

Visit redcross.org/ca/santa-cruz or call 462-2881 for more information about how to donate blood and funds, volunteer and/or take classes with the American Red Cross Santa Cruz County Chapter. For eligibility requirements to donate blood, visit http://www.redcrossblood.org/donating-blood/eligibility-requirements

cover HurricaneIreneDonorHOW TO DONATE:

Visit redcrossblood.org and find out if you’re eligible

Find a blood drive near you and make an appointment

Make sure that you’re healthy the day of your appointment

Bring an ID and a list of your current medications to your appointment

Give yourself anywhere from 45 min. to an hour to complete the donation process

Dates and times of blood drives are subject to change. The Red Cross recommends scheduling an appointment to donate blood in advance by visiting redcrossblood.org or calling (800) 733-2767.

Friday, February 1, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Student Center, 440 Frederick St., Santa Cruz.
(Sponsor Code: SCBC) to schedule an appointment.

Wednesday, February 6, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Community Living Room, 100 Lockewood Lane, Scotts Valley.
(Sponsor Code: OAKTREE) to schedule an appointment.

Thursday, February 7, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gymnasium, 220 Elk St., Santa Cruz.
(Sponsor Code: SANTA) to schedule an appointment.

Monday, February 11, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gymnasium, 220 Elk St., Santa Cruz.
(Sponsor Code: SANTA) to schedule an appointment.

Friday, February 15, 1-6 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church, Taylor Hall, 6090 Highway 9, Felton.
(Sponsor Code: FELTON) to schedule an appointment.

Wednesday, February 20, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gymnasium, 220 Elk St., Santa Cruz.
(Sponsor Code: SANTA) to schedule an appointment.

Saturday, February 23, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Masonic Hall, 828 N. Branciforte Ave., Santa Cruz.
(Sponsor Code: DEMOLAY) to schedule an appointment.

Monday, February 25, noon-6 p.m.
Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust, Hall, 85 Nielson St., Watsonville.
(Sponsor Code: WATSONVILL) to schedule an appointment.

To Top