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Vol. LXI, No. 15
July 24, 2009

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Blood Bank’s Needs Take No Summer Break

Every day on this campus, there are hundreds of patients who need help. But for many of them, the aid they require won’t necessarily come from doctors or nurses. It will instead come from people willing to donate something very precious, something for which there is no substitute.

Dr. Harvey Klein is chief of the Clinical Center’s department of transfusion medicine located on the first floor of the CC, and his daily reality includes worrying about what could happen if the NIH Blood Bank were to come up short.

“The blood bank is more like a pipeline than a bank,” he said. “We are constantly using it. It’s not like we can really bank it away. The need is every day.”

Blood bank representatives are proud to say that NIH is a self-sufficient entity where blood resources are concerned, drawing its blood supply from employees as well as members of the community who enter NIH’s gates in order to give. But sometimes—such as when several high-use surgeries are scheduled for the same day—that supply can run perilously thin.

On average, the CC uses more than 30 units of blood a day and at least 12 to 14 units of blood platelets (the part that helps the blood to clot). While the blood bank can measure the length of time it can store a whole blood donation in weeks, the window for platelets is brief at 5 days. Subtract from that 36 hours in which the platelets are tested for bacteria and it’s down to 3½ days. And having enough platelets for a patient suffering from something like leukemia, aplastic anemia or cancer can mean the difference between life and death. “

Our supply and demand ebbs and flows,” said Phyllis Byrne, managing director of the NIH Platelet Center, who also works to recruit and register bone marrow donors. “If we have a huge case in the OR, we’re going to use up more resources. Or if we have several people getting transplants or major surgery, it’s going to take its toll on our supply, but we have to keep up with the inventory.”

Keeping up with the demand has until now rarely been a problem. However, lately, those who work in the blood bank are becoming concerned, most specifically about a shrinking donor base. Due to age, illness or commitments that take people away from the community, donors steadily drop from the blood bank’s rolls and don’t often get replaced by new donors to keep the supply at acceptable levels. Klein acknowledges that “it has become increasingly difficult for community donors to access the NIH campus given the security screening, but we have been working to make the process smoother and more rapid.”

Nonetheless, he is starting to wonder what his department can do to keep the need for donations in the public eye, especially during summers and before major holidays when the demand for resources is at its peak, yet the stream of donations slows to a trickle.

“If there is an emergency, such as Sept. 11 or the recent Metro accident, we’ll always get more people coming in who understand that you need blood in a situation like that,” he said. “But people tend to forget about it at other times. The big challenge is keeping people sensitized to that need. No one assumes it won’t be there when they need it, but if people don’t donate, that very well could happen.”

“Our supply and demand ebbs and flows. If we have a huge case in the OR, we’re going to use up more resources. Or if we have several people getting transplants
or major surgery, it’s going to take its toll on our supply, but we have to keep up with the inventory.”


Both Byrne and Klein stress that if everyone who is not yet a donor began giving blood or platelets just once a year, the blood bank would never have to worry about its ability to serve the Clinical Center. Many supervisors are supportive of their employees’ desire to donate, said Klein, understanding when they slip away from the office for this altruistic purpose. But most of the time, it’s not a matter of getting the boss’s okay.

“If they could just take the time to fit it into their busy schedules,” he said. “And many people have a fear of needles. These are valid concerns, but we would still love to work with them.”

Some people choose to have their blood typed and then ask to be notified when their blood type is strongly needed, much the way bone marrow donors get entered into a registry. But the truth of the matter is that both types of donations—blood and platelets—are constantly needed.

While the blood donor room was quiet on a recent Monday morning, two visitors from outside NIH’s borders were donating in the adjoining platelet room.

Diane Straub began donating several years ago when a friend’s daughter had health problems and needed donations of blood and marrow. “I guess it’s my good deed,” she said.

In the recliner beside her, Carol Allen, a donor who travels in from Woodbine, Md., agreed, saying she always feels welcomed by the staff whenever she walks in the door, which happens often. Allen’s been donating since the early 1980s and donates about five times a year.

“I like to think I’m helping someone when I come here,” she said. “Well that, and I also come for the snacks,” she added with a laugh.

For more information about donating blood, platelets or other resources to the NIH Blood Bank, go to, or call (301) 496-1048. NIHRecord Icon

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