Vital Fluid

Lifeblood provides a community safety net-but its levels are often dangerously low.

Last August, after surgery for colo-rectal cancer, 57-year-old Harry Todtman started severe hemorrhaging. Before his ordeal was over, 41 units (pints) of blood had been pumped into his body. "That blood literally saved my life," he says.

Meeting an urgent demand for blood — including red cells, platelets, and plasma — is the mission of Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Center, which serves 14 counties in four states. It's a staggering task for an institution that needs at least 300 units of blood a day — twice the national average — and on a good day collects 200.

"There are positive reasons why we use so much blood," says Margaret Ryan, CEO of the Lifeblood Foundation, the organization's fund-raising arm. "With all the hospital systems we have in place, and the array of services — whether it's transplant or cardiac or cancer — our residents don't have to worry about going anywhere else for medical care."

But because it serves such a large medical center, including one of the top-five busiest trauma centers in the nation at The Med, Lifeblood often feels the pinch. "The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that a community maintain at least a seven-day supply of blood," says Ryan. "We do well to maintain a three-day supply." To make up the difference, Lifeblood must import blood from other centers across the country — about 45,000 pints last year at a cost of $5 million.

The types of blood most in demand are types O and B. As the universal type, O-negative is especially crucial to have in stock. "The majority of cases at The Med's trauma center are car accidents," says Ryan. "And in an accident, there may not be time to type the blood, so the patients are given the universal type in order to stabilize them. If it's not there, you don't have time to go searching for it."

Each morning, Lifeblood — located at 1040 Madison, where blood collected from its nine donor centers is processed and distributed in the community — consults with hospital leaders about their surgery schedule. "Many times we know that if anything else happens that day, we'll fall short," says Ryan.

During certain times of the year, including the upcoming 4th of July when more accidents tend to occur, the blood supply dips to seriously low levels. It's also low during summer and other holidays because regular donors are on vacation or busier than usual.

According to market research, lack of time in a fast-paced world is the main reason people don't give blood. "There's also fear of the needle," says Ryan, "but mainly it's time and convenience." Some dislike responding to a list of health-related questions, but the FDA and other state and government agencies require that response to ensure the safety of donated blood.

Because of local demographics, more African-American donors are being recruited, thanks to businessman Fred Jones and several church leaders. "They've helped raise the number of black donors from 11 percent to 18 percent," says Ryan, "and we're grateful for their partnership."

Lifeblood also depends on "community partners," such as AutoZone and First Tennessee Bank, to fund bloodmobiles and other projects. AutoZone established a donor center at the University of Memphis, and several corporations hold regular blood drives. "You're more likely to listen," says Ryan, "when a friend or co-worker tells you about the need."

Today, although health factors prevent Harry Todtman from giving blood, news of his situation prompted others to donate. "We really didn't know that much about Lifeblood till after my surgery," he says. Now his girlfriend and other friends donate regularly.

"An hour of a person's time every two months," says Ryan, "can help provide a lifeline to those who desperately need it." 

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