Blood donations important during holidays as levels drop

“Thirteen Bloody Days of Christmas” aren’t usually what tourists have on their minds while cramming themselves into tight Las Vegas spots during the holidays. But the flow of the local blood supply can be a matter of life or death.

During the holiday season in Las Vegas, “our production cuts down probably by 50, 60 percent on some days,” says Danny Cervantes, United Blood Services Nevada’s regional donor recruitment director. With three locations in the Las Vegas Valley, the nonprofit community blood center provides blood products to 35 medical facilities in Southern California, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada, he says.

“The blood supply generally does drop from the Thanksgiving to the New Year time period, but the need does not,” says Lisa Gorlick, administrative director for University Medical Center’s laboratory services and overseer of its transfusion medicine department.

Cervantes’ theory is that people “are trying to recoup from Thanksgiving and then do holiday parties with their kids, and anything out in the community. They just put blood donations on the back burner.”

That’s where Las Vegas headliners Penn &Teller come in with the 13-year strong “13 Bloody Days of Christmas” blood drive, which will extend this year from Dec. 18 through 31 (closed Christmas Day). Donors receive two tickets to the pair’s comedy-magic show at the Rio.

Cervantes estimates that United Blood Services typically gives out a landslide of vouchers, about 4,000 to 5,000. Penn &Teller’s generosity helps to bridge an uncomfortable gap, carrying the blood bank into the first two weeks of January.

But there’s more to the challenges of maintaining an adequate blood supply than the holiday decline in donations. Las Vegas faces a challenge that doesn’t occur in most other locales: a wave of out-of-town guests, combined with excess alcohol and other seasonal hazards. It’s an unhealthy combination.

“That week just before New Year’s Eve is probably the highest volume that we see in the city,” says general surgeon Daniel McBride, regional chief medical officer for the Valley Health System.

“Every year there is a blood shortage,” adds physician John Henner, chief operating officer of Fremont Emergency Services and chairman of emergency medicine for Dignity Health. “Every single year.”

Gregg Fusto, a registered nurse and director of UMC’s trauma and burn services, described the hazards as “seasonal,” ranging from the onslaught of drunken drivers to the hidden pitfalls of Christmas trees.

“We see anywhere from 900 to 1,000 patients a month normally,” he says. “And it trends for the holiday season. Starting the week before Thanksgiving, we’ll probably go up a hundred extra patients.”

That means using more blood, he adds. It’s a taxing proposition, given just how much blood is already needed when people aren’t celebrating. UMC’s trauma resuscitation department alone uses 1,500 pints of blood a year, according to Fusto.

Lisa Mott, collections manager at the American Red Cross, says her organization needs about 900 donors a week to meet the needs of nine hospitals in Las Vegas.

Adding to the holiday crunch are people rushing to get elective surgeries at the last minute, especially between Christmas and New Year’s, to take advantage of their insurance before year’s end, McBride says.

Blood doesn’t save lives merely in its “whole” form. According to Mott, the Red Cross sends blood to its manufacturing site in Salt Lake City, where it’s spun down, and plasma is taken off of it. Plasma and red cells are blood products people usually don’t think about, she adds.

Cervantes says United Blood Services has its own processing laboratory at its West Charleston location. That’s where blood is spun down, and about 1,500 or more pints, or blood products, including platelets, are processed per week.

The rules about giving blood are becoming more stringent, he says, with issues such as West Nile virus locally and mad cow disease abroad. Because of Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandates, potential donors may not be permitted to give blood if they’ve lived in Europe for a period of time, or if they’ve had contact with other areas that might be a risk. Potential donors also receive a medication deferral list. If someone has taken one of those medications, Cervantes says, he or she will be asked not to give blood.

Mott says Red Cross donors need to be in good health, weigh 110 pounds, and eat and hydrate well before giving blood. The process takes about an hour, including a quick health history and checking vitals and hemoglobin. Follow-up questions may take 10 to 20 minutes. Donating the blood itself takes five to 10 minutes.

The Red Cross then sends blood samples for safety tests to its laboratory in Portland, Ore.,which screens for infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The Red Cross lab is one of five national testing laboratories in the United States, Mott says.

According to Cervantes, United Blood Services does some testing at its Charleston location, but does most of it at a facility in Scottsdale, Ariz.

When people need blood, Henner says, they’re usually in their darkest hour. Especially when they have a rare blood type, such as AB negative, which can delay lifesaving care if there’s not enough on hand.

But blood type, rare or common, shouldn’t preclude anyone from giving blood, Mott says.

“We need everybody,” she says.

So does United Blood Services, which keeps its Charleston location open seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

To gather even more holiday momentum, the blood bank will join forces Dec. 4 with UMC and other community players to host the largest blood drive in Las Vegas history, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the UMC parking lot, Cervantes says.

Bloodmobiles from other parts of the country will be on hand. And, there’ll be many giveaways to entice donors.

To reach a goal of 600 units of blood in one day, “we’re going to have to see roughly 750 to 800 people,” Cervantes says.

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