In 1881, nurse Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. Since then, the organization has focused on serving people in need. For 140 years, it has provided services to the United States Armed Forces and their families, as well as provided disaster relief in the U.S. and around the world.
One of the most significant services of the Red Cross is collecting blood at donation sites nationwide.
Right now, the Red Cross is facing a national blood crises – the worst blood shortage in more than a decade. The shortage is so dire, the Red Cross has been forced to make decisions about who may or may not receive a blood transfusion during this stressful time.
Chief Medical Officer of the Red Cross Dr. Pampee Young said the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped in the least, especially now with the rise in cases of the Omicron strain.
“While some types of medical care can wait, others can’t,” Dr. Young said in a press release. “Hospitals are still seeing accident victims, cancer patients, those with blood disorders like sickle cell disease, and individuals who are seriously ill who all need blood transfusions to live, even as Omicron cases surge across the country. We’re doing everything we can to increase blood donations to ensure every patient can receive medical treatments without delay, but we cannot do it without more donors. We need the help of the American people.”
In Pocahontas County, the Red Cross holds a blood drive every other month at the Community Wellness Center in Marlinton.
With January being National Blood Donor month, it seems fitting to recognize those who have answered the call for blood donations, time and time again.
Sunny Given, of Cass, began donating blood at the age of 17, when she lived in South Charleston. She was inspired to do so by her dad, who was a blood donor, as well.
“I have a memory of him taking me to a blood drive,” Given said. “At that time, it wasn’t quite as strictly regulated as it is now. I was standing at the bed when he was donating blood. I thought that was pretty cool, and then when he got too old to give – which is something else that’s changed – he was a driver for Red Cross.”
Given said her dad gave around 13 gallons during his time as a donor, and she will hit her 20 gallon mark at the next blood drive in February. Taking into consideration that each donor gives a pint per drive, Given has nearly an obsession when it comes to bloodmobiles.
“My next donation will make twenty gallons with the Red Cross, but I have given more because I gave when I was in school in Pittsburgh, to the local blood bank for money,” she said. “Starving artist, you know.”
Along with donating blood, Given has done apheresis plasma donations, which counts as two pints because it requires more time. To donate plasma, the blood is drawn, then the plasma is removed from the blood, before it is returned to the donor.
Joyce Mullens, of Marlinton, has donated 21 gallons and is working toward 22.
“I’m up to twenty-one gallons, so you know it’s been a long time,” she said, when asked how long she’s been a donor. “I just figured it was something I could do to help people. It doesn’t cost me anything but a little bit of time. It doesn’t cost me money or anything, and it’s still helping people.”
Mullens has donated in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, wherever she makes her home. She plans to continue to give as long as she can and suggests that others should try, at least once, to do something good for the community.
“You feel better afterward, I think,” she said. “Maybe it’s just psychological, knowing you did something for somebody.
“They always tell you to eat good and to not do any heavy lifting, so you just get to lay around for a day and not do anything,” she added, laughing. “You get to eat. They give you a snack. You’re pampered for a day.”
The volunteers who provide the snacks are very protective of donors and Mullens remembers one, in particular, who kept a watchful eye on the donors before allowing them to leave.
“They like for you to stay for a few minutes [after donating],” she said. “When [Ina] Montgomery was in charge of it, she’d write your time on a napkin and tell you, ‘you can’t leave until that time’s up.’ She gave you fifteen minutes and you couldn’t leave before the fifteen minutes was up. Now, they’re not so strict. As long as you’re feeling good, they let you leave.”
Blood drives aren’t the only time donors receive the call to give. In the past, medical facilities or even neighbors would call individuals, especially universal donors, and ask them to donate blood for specific individuals.
That was how Buck Turner, of Marlinton, started donating. A community member was having surgery and a lab worker at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital reached out to Turner – who is a universal donor – asking him to donate.
“After that, I just started and said I was going to go until I gave five gallons,” he said. “Then I got there, so I said I’m going to go until I give ten gallons, then I thought, ‘why stop now?’ I’m going to try for fifteen gallons, at least.”
Through the years, Turner had a friendly competition with a fellow donor to see who would donate the most.
Turner will soon receive his 14-gallon pin and will proudly display it on a baseball cap with the rest of his pins.
“I have a ball cap that has my very first pin,” he said. “The first time you give, they give you a little red plastic pin and then for every gallon, you get a gold colored pin.”
For some, donating blood is difficult due to their body’s chemistry and/or health issues they may have. Donors have been turned away in the past for having low iron and are given tips on what to eat to improve their iron levels for the next time they want to donate.
To ensure he is able to donate every time, Turner has a few tried and true items he consumes before the blood drive.
“I learned that if I eat me a big ol’ juicy hamburger the night before I go, my iron is always up good,” he said. “Plus, I drink Chaga tea. It’s a mushroom tea. It’s supposed to kill cancer cells. It’s real high in all your vitamins. The last thing I saw about it says it helps fight viruses. It helps your body.”
Marlinton resident Roger Trusler was also contacted by PMH back in the 1980s, but for a different reason than Turner. While Turner was a universal donor, Trusler has a rare blood type.
“I got a call from Pocahontas Memorial Hospital saying they needed AB Positive blood and that’s rare – there’s only one or two percent of the population with it,” he said. “They asked me if I could come up to the hospital and donate, so I did.
“Then, when the bloodmobile started being regular around here, I started donating when I could,” he added.
Trusler said he his close to completing his ninth gallon and plans to continue for as long as he can. He encourages others to join in the cause and said the bloodmobile staff and volunteers make it an easy process to donate.
“If you really want to make a difference and help someone, donate,” he said. “It’s painless. The prescreening is very easy. The nurses will take care of you. The people are very friendly and very accommodating.”
Trusler said they are even welcoming to his leader dog, Koda, who patiently waits by the cot as he donates.
Donors with the Red Cross receive email updates which inform them as to where their blood has gone and approximately how many individuals they have helped with the donations they make.
“My blood has gone to WVU Children’s Hospital,” Trusler said. “It’s gone to veterans’ hospitals. I remember one time it went to California to a lady who was having a lot of difficulty and required a lot of blood. They take care of your region before they ship it out somewhere else.”
The next Red Cross Bloodmobile will be Tuesday, February 1, at the Community Wellness Center in Marlinton. Donors are asked to make an appointment by visiting the website at www.redcrossblood.org/give.html and entering the zip code 24954. From there, donors may select a time slot that is still available and whether or not they wish to give just blood or “Power Red” which collects red cells.
Power red donors must have a blood type of A Negative, B Negative or O.
Donors may also call 1-800-733-2767 to make an appointment.