Giving Blood 101

By: Joanne Pallotta

BIDMC Correspondent


Every 2 seconds, someone in America needs blood, according to the American Red Cross. The statistic is startling.  The need for donations is constant.  But, did you know that 1 donation could help save up to 3 people?  “If it was your family member, your neighbor, your colleague, or even yourself; you would want that blood available in your time of need,” stresses Jecoliah Ellis, External Communications Manager with the Red Cross Massachusetts Blood Services Region. With that message in hand, the Red Cross and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are calling on you to give the gift of life. Becoming a donor is easy.


The Importance of Giving:


According to the Red Cross, a single car accident victim might require as many as 100 pints of blood at one time. A person with sickle cell disease can require frequent blood transfusions throughout their lives.  Many cancer patients will need blood during chemotherapy.  Because blood products have a short shelf life — 42 days for red cells, 5 days for platelets — the need is constant.  “We need donors of all blood types,” emphasizes Ellis.


The Red Cross has seven Blood Donation Centers in Massachusetts but holds about 20 to 25 blood drives across the state each day, setting up in communities where you live and work. While walk-ins are welcome, potential donors are encouraged to make an appointment.




Although an estimated 38% of the U.S. population is eligible to donate, less than 10% actually do each year. In Massachusetts, you are eligible at age 17, 16 with parental consent.  You must weight at least 110 lbs. and be feeling healthy at the time you plan to donate.  There are additional weight requirements for donors 18 years of age and younger and all high school donors.  However, certain travel, some medical conditions or medications, or low hemoglobin might make you ineligible. Travel or medical reasons might defer a donation temporarily, or, in some cases, permanently.


Preparation to Donate:


Before you give blood, there are simple steps you can take to make your donation a success. Hydration is important.  You want to make sure you have lots of water in the days and weeks leading up to your donation.  Have a light, healthy meal before you come in.  Eat foods rich in iron.  But most important, make sure you’re feeling healthy.  “If you have cold symptoms or are not feeling well,” adds Ellis, “We invite you to feel better and come back at another time.”


Don’t forget to bring your donor card, driver’s license, or two other forms of identification with you. Also, have a list of the medications you are currently taking.


Donation Day:


Prepare for a big welcome when you arrive. It’s then that you’ll begin the registration process.  You’ll be given important information to read to make sure you are still eligible to donate.  All information you give the Red Cross is confidential.


After that, you’ll receive a mini-physical to check your pulse, blood pressure, body temperature and hemoglobin. Then, it is on to the actual donation.


Once you are in the chair, the actual blood donation only takes about 8 to 10 minutes (longer for certain donation types such as platelets or double red cell donations). However, the Red Cross recommends that you block out more than an hour start–to-finish.



Nothing To Fear:


The process of donating blood is a safe one. An area of the arm is cleansed and a sterile needle is inserted to draw the blood.  Ellis acknowledges that some people come in with the fear of needles. She calls it a just a “pinch” that lasts only seconds and pales in comparison to the lives you’re helping save. After a pint of blood is collected, the donation is complete.  A bandage is placed on your arm and the needle is discarded, never to be used again.


After You Give:


You’ll be given refreshments and snacks such as cookies, pretzels, raisins and juice. “We invite you to take a load off and celebrate the fact that you just gave blood and helped save a life,” says Ellis.  The Red Cross recommends you take it easy the rest of the day – relax and don’t do anything too strenuous.


The Red Cross hopes you’ll consider coming in to donate over and over. For blood donations, you are eligible to donate again after 56 days.  For platelets, you are eligible to give every seven days and up to 24 times a year.


The Journey:


After you give blood in Massachusetts, it is brought to Red Cross headquarters in Dedham to be processed in the lab. During that time, samples are sent to a national testing lab for HIV, hepatitis B and C, syphilis and other infectious diseases.  The whole process takes two to three days then, it’s ready to be shipped to a hospital like Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.


In an emergency situation, the Red Cross might get a call from a hospital in the middle of the night. In that case, blood products already collected and tested are sent immediately.


The Demand:


Summer and winter are challenging times of the year for collections. As you might imagine, the uncertain New England weather can greatly impact blood drives and appointments. Factors such as vacations and student breaks can also have a big effect. “We get 20% of our blood supply from high schools and colleges during the school year,” points out Ellis.  “When they are out (on summer break), it definitely impacts the blood supply.”  This past summer, the Red Cross issued an urgent call for blood and platelet donations to help prevent an emergency shortage.


The Red Cross will provide blood wherever and whenever it’s needed. All blood types are needed, however, Type O negative blood is often in high demand because it can be used in emergency situations when there is not enough time to type a patient’s blood.  Type O negative is the universal blood type and can be transfused to anyone who needs blood.


Making an appointment to give is as easy as logging on to or by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. You can also follow the Red Cross on twitter @RedCrossBloodMA to keep up on the latest news and find out about blood drives in or near your community.


Jecoliah Ellis can’t say it enough: “Donating blood is a community responsibility. You never know when someone you care about will need it.”