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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. Headshot

With Blood Donations, Sharing Is Caring

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Iron Man has swept back onto the silver screen, once again performing his heroic deeds to help mankind. Also this week, other men and women of iron are acting as heroes in a more quiet way, donating blood to help fellow citizens in desperate need.

In fact, iron is a major component of our red blood cells, and a single unit of blood is packed with it. Now, if only our blood donation centers could draw a crowd the way Iron Man 2 did this weekend. For a city where heroism and giving is always in style, it's surprising that fewer than 3 percent of eligible donors in Los Angeles give blood. That's the lowest rate of any major city in the U.S. That's even well below the national rate, with about 5 percent of Americans giving blood each year.

It's estimated that every two seconds, a patient in the U.S. needs blood. The needs range from emergencies to elective surgeries to cancer treatments. As science and medicine have advanced, the need for blood has also grown. Cardiac surgery and organ transplants rely on donated blood. The management of many diseases, including sickle cell disease, anemia and hemophilia, depend on blood generously given by donors.

Most people are eligible to donate if they weigh at least 110 pounds, are in good health and do not have any infections, and have no history of hepatitis after age 11. You must be at least 17 years old to donate - and the good news is, you're never too old to donate.

There are many excuses not to donate - the snarled traffic, long hours at the office and those pointy needles. But many of the excuses are less valid than you might think. I hope that by debunking a few of the myths, you might consider rolling up your sleeve and giving a little blood. My goal is simple: To convince at least 1 percent of you. If the number of Americans donating blood would increase by just one percentage point, blood shortages would disappear for the foreseeable future. One percent of Huffington Post readers would be a tremendous start.

Myth: If a loved one ever needs blood, I will donate then.

Blood takes three to five days to be cleaned and processed before it is ready to be given to patients in need. For a relative undergoing elective surgery, it's plausible you could plan to donate blood for them. But, in an emergency, doctors and your loved ones rely on blood from volunteer donors. Further, there is no evidence that directed donations are safer. In fact, the blood of a close relative is more likely to cause a reaction by the immune system.

Myth: It will take too long.

From door to door, including paperwork for screening, the process takes about an hour. It starts with registration, health history and a mini-physical. The actual drawing of blood only takes 10 to 12 minutes, and about a pint of blood is taken. Then, you're asked to relax for a few minutes with refreshments. Sometimes, donors feel a little light-headed after donating, but that's generally remedied with rest and by drinking liquids.

Myth: It will be uncomfortable.

There is a mild amount of discomfort when the needle is inserted, but less painful than a piercing. And, for those who are giving platelets and spending more time in the chair - up to 90 minutes for the actual donations - there are plenty of amenities. Chairs at many blood centers are equipped with individual TVs, or offer a selection of DVDs. It's not quite the same as an afternoon at a spa, but it's plenty plush - and lives depend on blood donations.

Myth: I could get sick.

Blood donation is 100 percent safe. You cannot catch any contagious diseases by donating. Giving blood never places the donor at risk of getting AIDS or hepatitis. The sterile collection kits used for blood donations are used only once and then discarded.

The blood that's collected is safe, too, and is run through a battery of tests. Blood is tested for blood-borne agents like HIV, hepatitis and syphilis. It is also tested to determine its ABO typing, Rh factor and what sorts of antibodies it may contain.

Current Blood Donation Restrictions

There are some restrictions on blood donation. Someone might be temporarily ineligible to donate due to a tattoo, piercing or needle-stick. A dental procedure or minor surgery within 72 hours of donation, travel to a malaria-endemic area within the past year, or taking certain medications like Acutane, Proscar or Propecia also temporarily affect eligibility. Platelet donors cannot take aspirin or aspirin-containing medications two days prior to donation.

Currently, the FDA does not allow men who have had sex with another man since 1977 to donate. This rule was enacted in the early years of the AIDS scare with the aim of protecting the blood supply. The Department of Health and Human Services will be re-examining the issue in June after a group of 18 senators wrote to the FDA urging it to reconsider the policy. In recent years, the American Red Cross, the American Assn. of Blood Banks and America's Blood Centers recommended loosening the restrictions. The group - which collectively represents nearly every blood bank in the nation - suggests allowing men who have not had sex with another man for one year to donate blood. The American Medical Association has proposed a similar policy, but recommended a five-year waiting period.

Blood is a national resource. Due in part to the lack of volunteer blood donors in Southern California and other parts of the state, more than half the blood used in California must be imported from other states.

You can help stop that with a phone call. Just make an appointment to donate. Naturally, I recommend the Rita and Taft Schreiber Blood Donor Facility at Cedars-Sinai, which can be reached at 310-423-5346. You can also find a center near you at www.redcrossblood.org.
And you never know who might be sitting next to you. It might just be Robert Downey, Jr.