Happy Birthday, America – give blood!

Here's me in October 2006, posing with a pint of the Red Cross' finest.

By Michael Yudell

As we celebrate the birth of our country and come together in the spirit of community this week, do something for a fellow American: donate blood. It turns out we need it.

Someone in the United States needs a blood transfusion every two seconds. But the blood supply has dropped to emergency levels, the American Red Cross announced last week,with 50,000 fewer blood donors than expected in June. Only three in 100 Americans are current blood donors, and the Red Cross worries that many of its “regular donors got an early start on summer activities and aren’t taking time to give blood or platelets.”

There is enough of a shortage that “there is always the chance that a physician could postpone an elective surgery if the needed blood products aren’t readily available,” said Richard Benjamin, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross. “In a worst case scenario, a physician may have to forego performing a more serious procedure for a patient because of a shortage of blood.”

For me, giving blood is very personal. I spent eight months in chemotherapy in 2006 and 2007 to treat a rare form of lymphoma that had been diagnosed months after my wedding. In the course of that intense regimen, I received between 20 and 30 transfusions of blood products to help my body survive both the cancerous and chemical assault it was under. I got blood from friends (yes, you can donate directly to someone you know in need) and from complete strangers.

I would have died without those transfusions. One night in February 2007, I was admitted to the hospital for a neutropenic fever caused by the absence of white blood cells called neutrophils. As I blogged afterward as Bald Mike, the fever was high all day and peaked at 103.6 that night. But I couldn’t receive a transfusion until it was below 101 because a possible reaction to the transfusion itself would send my fever to dangerously high levels. After lots of bedside worrying, my fever broke at midnight, and I got the red blood cells and platelets I needed.

As much as I would like to donate now, blood cancer survivors are among the groups that are ineligible. So people like me depend on the rest of you to help out. Well, most of you anyhow. There is still a controversial and unnecessary lifetime ban that prevents gay men from donating. This policy – a throwback to the early days of AIDS, before accurate screening of blood for HIV – is set in the by the Food and Drug Administration, and changing it is has been caught up in bad politics. The Red Cross believes “that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted” and recommends a modification to match criteria applied to other groups at increased risk of transmitting infections through blood. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, have lifted such lifetime bans.

People all around the country are sick and in need of blood right now. They are patients in chemo, accident victims, individuals with kidney or liver disease, and hemophiliacs. And you can help them. So find a place to donate near you, pick an arm, roll up your sleeve, and take a deep breath as the needle goes in (that helps with the sting).

You may be saving a life.

And that’s something to celebrate this Fourth of July.

Read more about The Public's Health.