Last year I learned of an extraordinary young boy from Long Island, Brandon VonBargen. Brandon, then a third-grader at Bayville School, was diagnosed in January with APML, a form of leukemia. This happy, caring 9-year-old required multiple transfusions of red blood cells, platelets and plasma during his initial phase of treatment. His family has attacked this illness with a positive attitude, and Brandon has demonstrated the will of a warrior. I couldn’t have been happier to learn last week that Brandon, now a 10-year-old fourth-grader, is in remission.
Every day across Long Island, and across the country, people like Brandon rely on blood products for survival. More specifically, according to the National Cancer Institute, more than 15,000 children and adolescents in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer each year. Childhood cancer patients may need blood products on a regular basis during chemotherapy, surgery or treatment for complications. Blood products can also help prevent life-threatening bleeding.
But the only source of blood and platelets for patients is volunteer donors. That’s why any disruptions to donations can lead to an emergency need.
Unfortunately, as we often see at this time of year, we now find ourselves in the midst of such an emergency. A blood donation shortfall over the winter holidays has prompted the American Red Cross to issue an emergency call for blood platelet donors to give now to prevent a blood shortage from continuing throughout the winter.
Many people may not realize that blood products — which are needed every day for accident and burn victims, heart surgery and organ transplant patients, and those receiving treatment for leukemia, cancer or sickle cell disease — are perishable. When donations decline — as they did recently, and may do so further if winter weather becomes more severe and flu season worsens — lifesaving medical treatments could be delayed.
Nationally, the Red Cross collected more than 27,000 fewer blood and platelet donations during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s than needed to sustain a sufficient blood supply. During that period, about 1,350 fewer blood drives were hosted by volunteer sponsor groups than required to meet patient needs, as busy holiday schedules kept many donors away.
Right now, the Red Cross has less than a three-day supply of most blood types on hand, well below the ideal five-day supply needed to respond to emergencies and daily hospital needs. Blood products are currently being distributed to hospitals faster than donations are coming in. As we proceed into a new year, we hope people can resolve to save lives now — when there is an emergency need — as well as throughout the year.
All eligible donors, especially platelet donors and blood donors with type O blood, are urged to make an appointment to give in the coming days to help restock the shelves for hospital patients. Type O negative is the universal blood type, and what emergency room personnel reach for when there is no time to determine the blood type of patients in the most serious situations.
Eligible donors can find a blood or platelet donation opportunity on Long Island and across the region, and schedule an appointment to donate, by using the free Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling (800) RED CROSS (733-2767). Volunteer blood drive hosts are also critically needed to prevent the shortage from worsening this winter.
As Brandon’s mother so poignantly told us, these blood donations “really do give people the chance to fight.”
Neela Lockel is chief executive officer of American Red Cross on Long Island.