After the devastating terrorist attacks of 9-11, just about everyone lined up to give blood–in New York and around the world. But at the height of the coronavirus pandemic? Not so much. There were no drives to collect blood in large quantities, due to health considerations, said Andrea Cefearelli, senior executive director of New York Blood Center. And not just in New York but abroad, he added. There was nobody to help.
“There was no safety net. It’s not like Texas could help us out when New York didn’t have enough blood,” Cefearelli said. “We were all in this together.”
Early on in the pandemic, Cefearelli said, having fewer blood donations was manageable. Routine surgeries were postponed during quarantine, and with everyone staying home, there were fewer accident victims in need of blood. But as the city opened up little by little in the summer, the need for blood increased. The number of donations, though, did not.
Luckily, however, last month was the highest collection month since the start of the pandemic. Cefearelli said the city is finally catching up, thanks to blood drives—especially the ones at high schools and colleges.
High school drives typically bring in about 50,000 annual donations, which translates to about one pint of blood per donation. The New York Blood Center even has a scholarship program for high schools that host at least two drives each year. And college blood drives, like the ones that were held during previous years at St. John’s University in Queens, Yeshiva University in Washington Heights, and New York University in Greenwich Village, bring in about 25,000.
Still, there is a lot of catching up to do, since the pandemic halted drives for months. And since blood drives account for about 75% of the blood gathered by New York Blood Center each month, the New York Daily News reported last year, this halt put a huge dent in the city’s supply. In May of 2020, the city only had two days worth of blood left in its supply.
New York Blood Center collected 100,000 fewer donations this past year compared with last year, Cefearelli said. To help New York get back on the right track, Columbia University and the New York Blood Center have been co-sponsoring spring blood drives, inviting the Columbia community to help save lives. The third and last drive of the series takes place on April 11 at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life.
Cefearelli said the New York Blood Center prefers appointments so they know how much staff to send to a drive, but they accept walk-ins too—as long as they can maintain social distancing.
Having enough donated blood is important because without it, people with cancer will either die from lack of transfusions or the inability to receive treatments that would require those transfusions, said David Diuguid, a doctor and professor of hematology at the Columbia University Medical Center. And people with blood disorders like thalassemia major “get tens of thousands of transfusions,” Diuguid said, that are “either life sustaining, or at least necessary to live a more normal life.” Hospitals in the New York and New Jersey area need close to 2,000 donations each day.
That is certainly true for Jennifer Lentini, who lives in Hicksville, New York. She received her first blood transfusion in 1996, while waiting for her heart transplant at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights. She said that in the same way her heart donor saved her life, she wouldn’t be alive without many pints of donated blood.
“Without those blood transfusions throughout my life, I wouldn’t be here today,” Lentini said. And if she were able to thank her donors face to face, she said she’d tell them, “Know that you have not only changed my life, but the people’s lives that I’m able to be in, and surround myself with. So, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Lentini said doctors told her parents that she wouldn’t make it to her 18th birthday, she said, “and my 25th birthday, and my 30th birthday. And I just turned 38.” She thinks fondly about the life she’s been able to live, thanks to anonymous blood donors and an organ donor. “I went to school for social work,” she said. “I’ve swam with sharks, I’ve gone on roller coasters. I’ve been able to live a life that, without these gifts, I wouldn’t have today.”
And then there are the donors. Valerie Foerster said she gets teary-eyed thinking about the people whose hearts are pumping the blood she gave them. The 70 year old said she has donated about 26 gallons of blood since she first started doing so as a teenager in Brooklyn. She lives in East Setauket on Long Island now.
Foerster said she donates both blood and platelets. She started donating platelets when her nephew was diagnosed with leukemia and needed them. And while it takes a little longer to do both, she doesn’t mind. “I get some time off, and people get life,” Foerster said. “They need it. I got it. I can make more.”
According to the National American Red Cross, those who are at least 16 years old, 110 pounds, and in good health can donate blood every 56 days. And Diuguid said that those who have received the COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t count themselves out just because there’s not much research about donating post-vaccination. There aren’t restrictions on donating blood after getting a flu shot, Diuguid said, so he recommends just waiting a few days to a week after getting the COVID-19 one.
“The vaccine itself is picked up by the cells in the body within a few hours after it’s given,” Diuguid said. “So, that will not be in the blood that’s being donated, unless you happen to donate blood the day you get the vaccine.”
Aside from age and weight restrictions, The National American Red Cross has a list of other eligibility guidelines-including medications, health conditions, and lifestyles that might delay or restrict your ability to donate. Less than 38% of the country’s population is eligible to donate blood.
First-time donors, Cefearelli said, are usually surprised by how easy the process is. “It’s a tiny pinch, but the thing is, you get to save someone’s life,” Cefearelli said. “Plan on an hour. The giving blood part is only about 15 minutes of it, the rest is filling out the tablet registration form, and the end is enjoying juice and cookies.”
Brian Thomas, a first responder who grew up in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, said he never thought about becoming a donor until he found himself being a recipient. A construction worker at the Port Authority in 2009, Thomas fell from a scaffold and shattered his heel. He said his New York University surgeon had to “basically take it apart, rebuild it, and then put it all back together,” and Thomas required transfusions during the operation.
Thomas, a husband and father, said he was grateful the city had enough Type O-negative blood at the time. He said the accident made him realize the importance of donating blood. Now, he gives back as a universal donor, a term used to describe O-negative donors, since anyone can receive O-negative red blood cells.
“Someday you might need it,” Thomas said. “And you’re going to be thankful that someone else donated.”