Blood Bankers In USA Swamped by Public Help

Labs in New York deluged with volunteers eager to donate blood in response to the tragedy

CEO SUMMARY: Even as news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent collapse of the buildings was captured on national television, people began arriving at blood collection sites to donate blood. It was a growing tidal wave of volunteer blood donors, as their numbers continued swelling throughout the day and into the remainder of the week, creating a “positive stress” on the blood banking system.

IT WAS UNPRECEDENTED in the nation’s history. Never before has there been such an immediate and huge response to donate blood following a dramatic event.

The earliest news was that, within hours of the terrorist attacks in Manhattan, lines of blood donors had formed outside every blood collection station in the city. As the day progressed, these lines grew longer and longer.

“That scene was repeated in cities and towns all over the United States,” stated Darrell Triulzi, M.D., Medical Director of the Institute of Transfusion Medicine (ITx) in Pittsburgh. “The nation’s blood banks were literally overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large numbers of people who wanted to give blood.

“In the 50-year history of our regional Institute of Transfusion Medicine, we’ve never seen anything like it,” he continued. “On the Wednesday after the attacks, we collected 2,100 units, our biggest one-day total ever! By comparison, a typical day’s collection averages about 500 to 600 units. For that week, our centers in Chicago and Pittsburgh collected 20,000 units, which is also a record.”

Record Blood Collections

“During the first 24 hours after the attacks, more than 5,000 units of blood were collected,” said Linda Levi, Director of Communications for the New York Blood Center (NYBC). “Through Saturday, we had collected 18,000 units. On a typical day, we collect about 1,500 units. So the response from the public has been incredible.”

The New York Blood Center is the nation’s largest. “We provide blood to more than 200 hospitals in the area,” noted Levi, “so it has been a logistical challenge to cope with this tragic emergency.”

Like clinical laboratory testing, blood banking depends on air transport for many functions of blood testing and processing. “The shutdown of air traffic last week, just as donations soared through the roof, created lots of anxiety,” recalled Dr. Triulzi.

Triulzi also noted that the ban on flights into the United States had an unexpected impact on the blood sup- ply in New York. “About 25% of the blood used daily in New York City is flown in from Europe. So there were a couple of days during that week when regular deliveries could not make it across the Atlantic. That represented a considerable shortfall in the daily quantity of units available for use.”

Europe Provides Blood

“That’s correct,” agreed Levi. “We do get about 25% of our daily blood requirements from Europe. During normal times, there is a shortage of donors in New York. We originally began receiving blood from Europe because they use the plasma, but do not need the red blood cells.”

Even without the unexpected surge in blood donors, emergency planners had already acted swiftly to bolster the blood supply in New York City. Within hours of the attacks, an additional 1,800 units of blood from other regions had been driven into New York City under police escort. That quantity, added to the units donated during the day, gave the city a five-day supply of blood.

“This ample supply of blood in New York City made a big difference in the immediate care of patients,” stated Melissa MacMillan, a Washington, DC-based spokesperson for American Blood Centers. According to MacMillan, different emergency treatment plans are keyed to whether or not adequate blood supplies are available.

National Blood Bank Plans

Dr. Triulzi pointed out that the immediate closure of normal commercial air traffic surprised the blood banking industry just like it did the laboratory industry. “Although the national network of blood banks is organized to provide mutual support in times of disaster,” he explained, “there were no crisis plans prepared to address what blood banks do to support each other if no planes can fly within the United States. It was fortunate that temporary arrangements successfully addressed the problem.”

Within Pittsburgh, one of the problems was that too many units were being collected following the attacks. “We were badly in need of blood and these units have replenished our supply,” observed Dr. Triulzi. “But blood is perishable. We were concerned that, as units became unusable in coming weeks, it would be too soon for blood donors to give again,” observed Triulzi. “That’s why we’ve encouraged people to schedule donations in coming weeks, instead of coming in right away.”

New York’s Donors Were Not Deterred

WITHIN HOURS of the coordinated terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, blood donors quietly kept arriving at Saint Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in New York’s Greenwich Village.

These people appeared out of nowhere and waited patiently in line, often for as long as eight hours. More than 500 blood donors showed up on the day of the attack. Most interestingly, the donors crafted handmade signs and organized themselves by blood type!

In the days following, the city sent buses to Saint Vincent’s to transport blood donors to other collection sites. Yet these people were always replaced by others who constantly lined the street, waiting for their turn to donate blood.

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