Right now, somewhere, someone in the United States is getting a blood transfusion. In fact, according to the American Red Cross, this happens every two seconds. They’re getting it in surgery, for catastrophic injury, or for any number of reasons. They could also be getting a component of blood; red blood cells, plasma or platelets. They’re getting it thanks to donors who voluntarily step up to share what will sustain the lives of strangers.
And while blood or blood by-products are available for so many people, only about five percent of the population actually donates. It’s not in short supply, but neither is it a surplus. “Blood donations are coming in every day,” said Vitalent, formerly Bonfils Blood Center, spokesperson Liz Lambert. “It’s an ongoing thing.”
Established in 1943 and originally known as Bonfils Blood Bank, Bonfils Blood Center recently was acquired by Vitalent, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based blood supply company. Vitalent explained that changing the name was in part an effort to attract younger donors. But the mission remains the same.
In announcing the name change of the Bonfils Blood Center, parent company, Blood Systems, also announced the purchase, takeover and renaming of ten other blood centers in other states. All will fly the Vitalent flag and operate 127 donation centers across 40 states.
Bonfils Blood Center was named after Denver philanthropist Helen Bonfils. As it grew, so too did its mission. Over the course of its eight-decade history, Bonfils Blood Center ultimately supplied blood and blood products to more than a hundred hospitals and healthcare centers across Colorado.
Though blood is something all humans have in common, it wasn’t until 1628 that an English physician discovered that it circulates through our bodies. The first transfusion of blood took place in 1665 but on dogs and not humans. The first human blood transfusion happened in 1818. Not quite 80 years later, in 1900, the first three blood types, ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘O’ were identified. Type ‘AB’ was added two years later. Type ‘O’ blood is the most common, type ‘AB negative’ the rarest.
The world’s first blood bank opened in Leningrad in 1932. The first American blood bank opened eight years later in 1940 when the U.S. government established a nationwide blood collection program.
Despite taking less than an hour and being essentially painless---just a simple prick with a needle---blood centers are not overflowing with donors. “There are more females than male (donors),” said Lambert. But, said Lambert, only marginally. Today’s youngest blood donors, said Lambert, are high school and college students. And many donors who begin early, are donors for life. “You don’t ‘age out’ of donating,” added Lambert. “Some people in their nineties still give.”
According to Lambert, Vitalent does not keep data on the ethnicity of blood donors and was unable to discuss Latino participation. But it does provide literature on blood donation in Spanish.
Giving blood is a seasonal matter, said Lambert. “Summer time is slow,” she said. “In winter we experience a similar challenge. Also, weather can play a role.” Maintaining a constant safe supply is an on-going challenge. “If every blood donor would consider giving three times a year we wouldn’t have shortfalls.” Also, on average it takes about four to six weeks for the body to replace a single pint of blood.
But this time of year, maintaining blood supplies at safe levels is critical. People are often busy doing other things. Shopping, attending family gatherings and other holiday events have people’s focus on things beyond donating blood.
It is also this time of year when the need for blood is most crucial. And, said Lambert, flu season often taxes current supplies. Still, if there’s a call for it, it will be made available.
It will be made available because Vitalent is part of a multi-state operation. Blood supplies are moved across its forty-state system to make certain that it ends up where it’s most needed. But, said Lambert, if you’re a Denver patient requiring a transfusion, it’s almost a given that the blood will be local and safe.
During the mid-80’s AIDS epidemic a number of people mistakenly received tainted blood. But that problem has largely been eliminated. The government instituted new guidelines for testing all donated blood for HIV in 1985 and, a few years later, implemented even more stringent protocols that minimized the danger of contaminated blood. According to the CDC, the chance of getting bad blood are somewhere between 1 in 1.5 million. Donations that test positive are discarded and not part of the nation’s blood supply.
To keep blood supplies at safe levels, it is estimated that 40,000 people donate a pint of blood each day. Most of the donated blood will end up being used for cancer patients, orthopedic surgeries, organ and marrow transplants and on those with blood anomalies, including hemophilia.
Blood is also extremely versatile. Its components, plasma, platelets, white and red blood cells are equally as valuable. Plasma, which can be extracted from blood, is the component that carries these blood components throughout the body and the fluid in which they travel. People often visit plasma centers and sell it.
Though Vitalent has supplanted Bonfils as the organizational name, the company has promised that the Bonfils name will remain embedded in the Denver headquarters. Donors along with others will still be able to learn about the many philanthropic contributions Bonfils made to Denver. The Bonfils name is associated with Denver and Colorado in arts and culture, healthcare, education and numerous humanitarian causes.