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DR. PAULA GRONCI: Hi, Oshonda, how are you doing today?
OSHONDA TAYLOR: Fine.
DR. PAULA GRONCI: Having any problems that I should know about?
TOM BEARDEN: 12-year-old Oshonda Taylor has sickle cell anemia. She requires regular blood transfusions. Normally she gets two units of blood once a month. But things aren’t normal. Last time, Dr. Paula Gronci was only able to give Oshonda one unit. That’s because the shelves in the blood bank at the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center just south of Los Angeles, are extremely short on blood.
DR. PAULA GRONCI: This is the first time in the 20 years that I’ve been practicing that I’ve been asked by our blood bank to only administer one unit of blood. We’ve had shortages before, particularly at the holiday seasons, Christmas and New Years’, but I’ve never been asked to not transfuse or to transfuse only a partial aliquat to a child.
TOM BEARDEN: Oshonda is caught up in what the Red Cross called, “one of the worst blood shortages in recorded history.” The agency said the problem was particularly acute in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New England, and the mid-Atlantic states. The Red Cross likes to have a four-day supply, 80,000 pints on hand. Last month the reserve shrunk to just 36,000. The shortage could have a devastating effect on people like Oshonda Taylor. Dr. Gronci says getting just one unit at a time puts her at greater risk for a stroke that could cause brain damage or even kill her.
OSHONDA TAYLOR: What’s scary about is that… to know that the fact that at any time or any point I can drop into pain, maybe die. It’s scary knowing that I can go just like that.
TOM BEARDEN: So now Oshonda’s mother has to take her to the hospital twice as often. After each transfusion, Oshonda also must take medications which make her violently ill for up to three days, so that ordeal is doubled, too. And Oshonda is not the only person at greater risk. Long Beach Memorial is a level-one trauma center, a place where badly injured people are taken after accidents. Treating them can consume enormous quantities of blood, especially type O blood, which can be given to anyone regardless of their own blood type. Type O is one of the types where supplies are critically low.
SPOKESMAN: Sections demonstrate a biopsy…
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Emanuel Ferro runs the hospital’s blood bank.
DR. EMANUEL FERRO: We are literally a car wreck away from having no blood on our shelves. Support traumas can sometimes take, 10, 20, 30 units just for one trauma, and we don’t have that on the shelves to support a trauma. So we’re really at risk for a trauma or series of traumas to sort of wipe us out and then leave us without blood for other patients that may need blood.
TOM BEARDEN: Long Beach Memorial is one of 150 hospitals in the Los Angeles area that depends on the American Red Cross to supply most of its blood. Dr. Peter Page runs the Los Angeles blood bank.
DR. PETER PAGE: This is the room where we have the red cells available for transfusion to our hospitals, and ordinarily the room is full. There’s more than three times as much blood as there is here now. The little bit of blood that we have is some A and some AB, a little bit more A, but B and O aren’t here.
TOM BEARDEN: One reason for the decline is that the demand for blood has risen 11 percent in the last two years while donations only increased by 8 percent.
DR. BERNADINE HEALY: Do you know we could not practice modern medicine without blood.
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Bernadine Healy is the President of the American Red Cross. She says demand will continue to grow because the population is aging, and doctors are using more blood in ever more high- tech procedures.
DR. BERNADINE HEALY: It’s called the wonders of modern medicine, because we are every day coming up with new approaches to solving difficult problems like cancer, liver transplantation, more complicated surgeries, caring for little babies in neonatal intensive care units. All of these call for blood, and that’s in addition to the normal uses that people think about, the accident on the roadway or an elective surgical operation.
WORKER: You’re going to feel a pinch and a burn.
TOM BEARDEN: Today only about 5 percent of the eligible population donates blood. It used to be higher, but donorship fell off in the 1980s because some people feared they could contract AIDS by giving blood. It was never true, but the numbers never recovered.
SPOKESMAN: You loading up blood to send it where?
SPOKESMAN: It’s going to Washington Township Hospital.
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Scott Murphy operates the Pennsylvania/New Jersey Blood Bank. He says lifestyle is also a factor.
DR. SCOTT MURPHY: I think we have a hectic kind of frenzied lifestyle in the United States. You look at married couples. 75 percent of the couples, both of them work. People have much less free time. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to in the last couple weeks who have said, “I just don’t have time to give blood.”
TOM BEARDEN: Donations usually pick up after Labor Day when people return from vacations. That didn’t happen this time. Like most big cities, Los Angeles uses more blood than local residents donate. The area imports more than 45 percent of its supply from other Red Cross blood banks around the country. In the past, donations from rural areas have made up for most shortfalls. But now everyone is short, and outlying areas have to take care of their own needs first. On the opposite coast, the city of Philadelphia found itself in the same boat as Los Angeles. They also import about 30 percent of the blood they need. On September 14, the Pennsylvania/New Jersey Red Cross asked the 100 hospitals they serve to postpone elective surgeries to conserve blood. Their stockpile had dropped below 40 percent.
SPOKESMAN: We need a cat scan in ten minutes, please.
TOM BEARDEN: Like Long Beach, the Hahneman Medical Center is a level one trauma center, treating a steady stream of badly injured people on a daily basis.
SPOKESMAN: You’re at Hahneman Hospital. We’re going to take a-number one care of you.
TOM BEARDEN: No one was more concerned than Dr. Bartholomew Toltella, the chief of trauma surgery.
DR. BARTHOLOMEW TOLTELLA: It’s a trauma surgeon’s worst nightmare. We may go days without using it and then get a patient who requires an extraordinary amount. My personal best is 45 pints of blood, and the patient walked out of the hospital.
TOM BEARDEN: Across town at Einstein Medical Center, there was also concern.
SPOKESMAN: What do we have?
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Ierachmiel Daskal runs that hospital’s blood bank. He says he was consulting the surgery schedule four times a day instead of two and was negotiating with surgeons on their need for blood.
DR. IERACHMIEL DASKAL: Surgery consumes only 50 percent of our blood. The other 50 percent is medical use. So you always have to think about the other, the silent part of the hospital that uses the product.
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Daskal says he sometimes loses sleep over the possibility that some time in the future, he may have to make a life or death decision on who will and who won’t get blood.
DR. SCOTT MURPHY: Hello. I’m Dr. Scott Murphy with an important message from the American Red Cross.
TOM BEARDEN: But a Red Cross plea for donors put off that decision, at least for a while. The blood banks were overwhelmed with more than new donors, more than 2,000 in three weeks.
WOMAN: I should have done it a long time ago.
TOM BEARDEN: That surge of donors got Philadelphia over the hump, but blood has a limited shelf life, just 42 days at most, and if it isn’t used, it must be discarded. Back in LA, more than three weeks after the national plea for blood, the shelves are still bare.
TV COMMERCIAL: An important message from the American Red Cross: Right now there is a blood shortage in our community.
TOM BEARDEN: So the Red Cross has started airing these public service announcements to spur a steady stream of donors. Doctors in both cities say the shortage wasn’t really a surprise because they’ve seen levels continue to drop for the last two years. Many surgeons have tried to find ways to conserve blood. One way is to use this machine called a cell saver. It collects the patient’s blood from the operating field, processes it, and returns it to the body’s system. But ultimately, doctors say the supply has to meet demand, and that means more people donating blood. But donations typically go down during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
DR. EMANUEL FERRO: According to their projections about what they’re drawing now, they don’t really have a date where we see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s a real big concern, because the holidays are sort of looming close.
TOM BEARDEN: You sound like you’re worried.
DR. EMANUEL FERRO: I’m worried. I’m very worried.
TOM BEARDEN: A lot of blood bank directors and hospitals are wondering how they’ll get through another looming crisis, much less deal with the longer- term problem of finding enough people willing to give what the Red Cross calls “the gift of life.”