Area blood supply at four-year low

By Julie Fann
star staff

JOHNSON CITY -- A bad flu season and winter weather have caused the blood supply in East Tennessee to plummet to a four-year low, a donor recruitment representative for the American Red Cross here said Thursday.
   "We have to collect 1,500 units of blood every day in order to meet the needs of our hospitals in the region because we ship out to our hospitals on a daily basis. Right now, we're two days in the hole," Sherrie Greenwell said. "It's the worst I've seen it, and I've been here four years."
   Greenwell said the recent winter storm caused a cancellation of more than 61 percent of all scheduled blood drives in the region which includes Washington, Carter, Johnson, Unicoi, and Greene counties as well as all of North Carolina, two counties in Georgia, and two in South Carolina.
   "It resulted in about a 3,000 unit loss. What this means is that we end up having to hold on to what blood we have for emergencies. It is amazing how our Hospital Services Department can look at our inventory and distribute what hospitals need," Greenwell said.
   A shortage of blood for hospital patients means increased stress for everyone involved. "Say a doctor is treating a patient at the Johnson City Medical Center and they are down to the next to last unit of blood they have. That's very frustrating for a doctor who is trying to save a patient's life and frustrating for the patient and the patient's family," Greenwell said.
   A normal winter influx of blood donors has dissipated over the past few months due to an unusually severe flu season.
   "Our donors who are usually faithful have just not been feeling healthy enough to give blood," Greenwell said.
   Susan Henson, director of the blood lab at Sycamore Shoals Hospital, said the facility purchases its blood from Marsh Blood Center in Kingsport. Though the shortage has affected Marsh, the problem has not reached Sycamore Shoals, she said.
   "Marsh has experienced a shortage, but they have been able to send us what we need. We have seen the most critical shortage on O-negative blood," she said, adding that the hospital will host a blood drive next month.
   "Some people are afraid to donate due to safety issues or infectious disease concerns. We would like to assure them that all of the equipment is sterile, and the needles are used only once and discarded. Also, one donation can actually help several people."
   The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the Red Cross' financial situation has been crumbling for months due to a drop in contributions and disasters that occurred in 2003 -- wildfires and mudslides in California, the Northeast power blackout, Hurricane Isabel, and about 500 tornadoes.
   American Red Cross President Marsha Johnson Evans also attributed the blood shortage to a bad flu season and added "donor fatigue" had set in among those who gave after Sept. 11.
   "On New Year's Eve -- with Code Orange alerts in every major city -- we at the Red Cross had only a two-day supply of red blood cells on hand, two average days," Evans said. "And we account for about half of the nation's blood supply."
   The Red Cross inventory on Wednesday remained at about a two-day supply, and a supply for five to seven days is needed, according to The Associated Press.
   To give blood, donors must be at least 17 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good, overall health. Some form of identification is required, and health officials ask potential donors to fill out a questionnaire and health history to make sure they are eligible to give.