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Thicker than water, but not as plentiful

Published July 13. 2010 05:00PM

It's a liquid more precious than any gem. It's always present in some quantity. Without it, we couldn't survive. And now, during the zenith of summer, it's demand has skyrocketed.

Here's a hint: you can't buy it in plastic bottles at Wal-Mart. Though, according to local medical authorities, it would make life a lot easier if you could.

Area blood banks are feeling the pressures of summer as donation rates plummet. And although the solution to this problem seems simple, getting volunteers to sit down and share some sangre is proving difficult.

"If everyone donated twice a year, once in the summer and winter, this wouldn't be a problem," Catherine Palumbo, the director of donor recruitment and marketing at Miller-Keystone Blood Center, said. "With schools out and people on vacation, there aren't many opportunities for people to give blood. It just doesn't seem to be something people think about in the summer."

High schools and college campuses are the two main hot spots for blood collection on a national scale, and with summer vacation in full swing, this otherwise-plentiful pipeline has run dry. But the demand hasn't changed.

According to the Miller-Keystone website, more than 450 units of blood are required daily in the 10 counties (Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Lehigh, Luzerne, Montgomery, Northampton, Schuylkill and Warren, New Jersey) that the center serves. These figures are at their highest during the winter and summer holidays, and blood supplies are still reeling from recent 4th of July-related injuries. But firecracker burns and drunken falls aren't the only cause of this shortcoming.

"The utilization of blood has increased," Clem McGinley, the vice president of medical affairs for Blue Mountain Health System, said. "During wartime, national blood supplies show a particular shortage, which trickles down to local blood banks."

McGinley claims that casualties of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regularly require multiple blood transfusions, making certain blood types, particularly O negative, extremely valuable. Blood centers may actually be contributing to the problem, as their more stringent regulations of late have turned potential donors away.

"In the '90s, 60 percent of people screened were eligible to give blood," McGinley said. "Now, only 30 percent meet requirements."

"People who have traveled abroad to regions where certain diseases like malaria or mad cow disease are common are unable to give blood for an entire year."

The most scrutinizing criteria in the world isn't enough, however, if those who are able to donate don't, and McGinley estimates that of the aforementioned 30 percent, only between 5 and 10 percent actually give their blood.

"It's a humanitarian process, and those who donate are helping out their fellow men and women," he said. "By donating one pint of blood, a volunteer can save the lives of three people. Donating really is a simple and painless procedure."

It must be, otherwise it would have been impossible for John Karnish to have given 101 pints of his own vital fluid. The Lansford native has been participating in blood drives regularly since he was 18, and can't stress enough how important it is that his peers follow suit.

"It's like putting money in the bank," he said. "How can you expect to take some out when you need it if you never put any in?"

Since 2008, Karnish has been helping organize blood drives in his hometown at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church. Despite his efforts at collecting, he still gets frustrated over the general apathy with which local citizens regard donating blood.

"If I put 700 stuffers in church bulletins, I'm lucky to get 10 people at a drive," he said. "I think it's such a waste that people aren't willing to help others in need."

Representatives from the American Red Cross blame part of this summertime negligence on the heat, a powerful deterrent for some individuals.

"It is absolutely safe to donate blood in the summer," Janice Osborne, the director of communications and marketing at the Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley, said. "Donating is not unlike any other outdoor activities. You just need to take the proper precautions."

Hydration is the most crucial factor, and potential donors are advised to imbibe plenty of fluids before and especially after giving blood. Cool, loose clothing, a good night's sleep and a healthy meal are additional prerequisites for ensuring a smooth and painless experience.

"You can save lives by just leaving your house for about an hour," Osborne said. "That's definitely worth braving the heat."

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