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Making Donation a 'Lifestyle'
Blood Bank Seeks to Swell Ranks of NIH Givers

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

If you haven't donated a unit of blood, or some platelets, at the NIH Blood Bank lately, now might be a good time to revisit that altruistic act. Not only does the bank have a continuing need, especially for O-positive and O-negative donors, but also the rewards are becoming more palpable.


Today's donors get treated like dignitaries, enjoying the always-friendly surroundings at the department of transfusion medicine (DTM) and its caring staff, who lavish a tasty array of treats on donors after they give. Recently unveiled is a "New Donor Kit" — a small shopping bag stuffed with such goodies as a 50 g bar of Toblerone chocolate, a DTM refrigerator magnet, a cool fountain pen and a "chip clip," for resealing bags of snacks. The Blood Bank even has a rainbow's worth of color-coordinated bandages, so that employees can return from the 2 hours of administrative leave granted for donation (though the procedure itself usually takes 30 minutes) with a bandage that matches their work attire. And the Blood Bank plans to expand operations from its current 4 days to 5, starting Oct. 4; the facility is open 10 hours each day.

Dr. Susan Leitman and donor recruiter Alan Decot

Donors also get a brand new friend — Alan Decot, a veteran businessman specializing in marketing who began working at DTM in April for the express purpose of recruiting new donors and urging them to make their gifts of life not just a one-time affair, but what Dr. Susan Leitman of DTM calls "a lifestyle." Decot, who came to NIH after a successful 25-year career at a printing company, stays in touch with all donors, reminding them when it's okay to come back for future donations, and spreading the good news about donation, which benefits Clinical Center patients.

There is one other emolument that ought to attract new donors — a special "donors only" parking lot that opened on Aug. 1. And once the new multilevel parking garage-9 opens in spring 2005, the Blood Bank will have, for the first time in its history, says Leitman, covered parking just outside the door of the bank, located on the west end of the CC's first floor.

NIH blood donors have always been treated well, but the recent attention to outreach and retention has been spurred by at least two factors. First, the late summer period is traditionally "the doldrums for donations," says Leitman, who is chief of DTM's blood services section. Not just at NIH, but regionally, blood donations dip when people are away on vacation. The other factor working against NIH's Blood Bank is the discouraging effect of new security restrictions since 9/11, which have seriously hampered the bank's ability to attract a formerly loyal cadre of neighbors.

"We've lost a lot of our community donors" owing to security obstacles, said Leitman. "It's had a huge negative impact. We hear comments from former donors to the effect that 'NIH has excluded us.' They no longer feel invited to give the gift of life."

Limited to recruiting mainly from among campus employees (and contractors — a special blood drive for Centex workers who helped build the new Clinical Research Center went especially well, Leitman reported), the Blood Bank has had to ramp up its marketing efforts in order to meet the needs of CC patients.

Though the Clinical Center is within an area served by the American Red Cross regional blood collection system, NIH has always relied solely on its own resources to collect blood; it is a self-sufficient enterprise. Donation for transfusion to patients is strictly voluntary and can take three forms — whole units of blood, platelets or granulocytes. There is also a paid category of donation, but this is only for research purposes. Donors can earn from $50 to $125 for giving blood cells for bench research. Whereas donors participating in the voluntary program are subject to an array of regulatory restrictions, the paid program — because it is not for transfusion into patients — has far fewer limitations.

Around 8 percent of people who come to the blood bank to donate are deferred (usually for 30 days), mainly because of a low hemoglobin level as determined by a fingerstick, Leitman said. Of this 8 percent, most are women, whose blood iron levels may be low due to menstruation. DTM offers free iron supplements to people deferred for this reason. Whether a potential donor is able to give or not, Decot follows up with either an invitation to reschedule, or a friendly call to see how the donation went.

In chairs, making donations in the comfy confines of the NIH Blood Bank are Marco Pol (l) and Charles Cheney, looked after by DTM staffers Glorice Mason (l), who has more than 30 years of experience in the Blood Bank, and Gladys Sanders.

Some factors exclude people from voluntary donation altogether, including possible exposure to HIV, or to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The latter restriction "hurts us tremendously," concedes Leitman, because it bars anyone who has spent more than 3 months in England or who has served for more than 6 months at a military base in Europe.

During the dog days of late August, the regional blood donor center serving Maryland and Virginia had only a 1.3-day supply of O-positive blood, a 0.9-day supply of B-negative and a 0.5-day supply of O-negative blood, Leitman said. "NIH has more than that," she added, "but the region is hurting."

She described a color code that blood bankers use to characterize their supply levels. Just as the Department of Homeland Security has its red, orange, yellow, etc., statuses for risk of terrorism, blood banks have a similar scheme: The red zone is worst, meaning supplies are down to one day or less. NIH falls into this zone around twice a year, Leitman said. When that happens, recruiters issue an urgent appeal via campus email, which usually resolves the problem. Rarely, DTM will resort to the Bldg. 10 public address system to appeal to donors, but only in worst-case scenarios. As September began, NIH was in the yellow zone (2-day supply), which is elevated from the green, or comfortable, zone, indicating 3 or more days worth of blood or blood products on hand.

The Story of O

The most uncommon blood group is O, but keeping enough of it on hand is a chronic problem at NIH, Leitman said. She said the CC enjoys yellow/green status for all types of blood in the bank, but hovers between red/yellow for O. This is largely due to an expanded hematopoietic transplant program that is growing each year, she explained, involving NIAID, NCI, NHLBI and NIDDK. A new transplant facility in the CRC will create even more demand for O blood. As Leitman explains, "Sixty to 65 percent of all transfusions are of O blood, but only 44 percent of donors are group O." Says Decot, "We set a target of 100 units of O on the shelf, but usually we have only 40-50." Adds Leitman, "We're not critically low, but we're uncomfortably low."

The Blood Bank experienced a 25 percent increase in red-cell transfusions in the last quarter, compared with a year ago, said Leitman, citing the increasing demands of the intramural transplant programs.

Recruiter Decot has responded to the new demand with more aggressive marketing, including flyers, posters, brochures and, in the vicinity of Mother's Day and Father's Day, flowers for donors. His most effective tool so far has been to man highly visible recruitment tables at various high-traffic locations on campus, such as outside the Bldg. 31 cafeteria, where 35 new donors signed up during only two days of lunch-hour sales pitches. Interestingly, about 65 percent of new donors are visitors to NIH, not employees, Decot noted; Leitman says many of those visitors are here seeing patients, whom they are anxious to help. Given a recent goal of attracting 150 new-donor visits per quarter, Decot got 250.

"He's been outstandingly successful. We're seeing good outcomes, and consistent growth. No one in our department has his kind of training and expertise," says Leitman. "Before Alan came, we weren't adding new donors at a rate to keep up with those who were dropping out due to age or infirmity. He became an active donor, too!" Decot plans to spend the last quarter of 2004 reaching out to nearby community libraries and the YMCA. "We want to live up to my goal of the 'ultimate donation experience,'" he says.

Leitman predicts that when the messiness associated with various campus construction projects abates in 2005, donors will have an easier time of visiting the bank. "My goal is for people to wake up feeling really good about the fact that 'This is my donation day.'"

Nationwide, only 5-6 percent of those eligible to give blood do so, Leitman noted; about 50 percent of the overall population is eligible — the rest are too old, too young, or not well.

Both Leitman and Decot are quick to credit a legion of committed NIH donors who visit the Blood Bank regularly. Included in this number are some 600 plateletpheresis donors who, because red-cell loss in the procedure is minimal, donate monthly. There are also more than 100 members of the Blood Bank's Hall of Fame, who each have given at least 100 units of whole blood. Marvels Decot, "That takes about 20 years to do." The two hope that, between the cadre of the already-committed and the newcomers who tend to be evangelistic about the benefits of donation, NIH can move firmly into the green zone in all blood types. Says Leitman, "We do everything we can to show our appreciation."

To arrange a donation, call (301) 496-1048.

Sooner or Later, Alan Decot Will Be Your Friend

If you think the NIH Blood Bank has been raising its profile with table tent cards, flyers aboard NIH shuttle buses, and recruitment tables, you're not mistaken. Since late April, when Alan Decot arrived to give the bank some marketing oomph, the program has gained visibility and — most importantly — new donors.

Alan Decot
Decot spent 25 years in sales with metro area printer Moore Wallace, which later merged with RR Donnelley, one of the nation's largest printing houses. When the business got too big and impersonal, and when what he promised customers could no longer reliably be backed up by the home office, Decot looked for a change. At NIH, he found "something I could sink my teeth into," he says with a smile.

He concurs with the vision expressed by Dr. Susan Leitman, chief of the blood services section in the department of transfusion medicine: "Donating is a way of life. Optimally, it's something you do several times a year. It's not a once in a lifetime thing. Our best donors look forward to donating and are disappointed if they are temporarily deferred for some reason."

Though he has been at NIH for only 5 months, Decot has mounted an active recruitment campaign. He is reaching out to families at the Children's Inn, to students and trainees in the intramural programs, and mans booths at such events as Research Festival and NIH's annual Orientation Fair. His message is the same to all audiences: adopt the donation lifestyle.

To learn more about why it is important to donate, visit

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