When you pass your driver’s test and get your license, probably the last thing on your mind is filling out an organ and tissue donor card. (In fact, you might be thinking, “My organs and tissues? I’m using them!”)
When you’re 18 years old (younger in some states), you’ll be eligible to give blood. Do you mistakenly believe that giving blood is somehow unsafe?
Well, if you don’t carry an organ donor card or donate your blood, you may be missing a chance to save a life.
Not Enough Donors
In the past few decades, organ and tissue transplantation has become more and more successful, literally giving tens of thousands of people a new lease on life. But…donated organs are unavailable for nearly two-thirds of the patients who need them. And this situation is steadily growing worse.
In 1987, 13,396 Americans were waiting for kidneys, hearts, livers, pancreases, or lungs. As of August 1993, this number was 31,891, an increase of 138 percent. From 1987 through 1992, the number of actual transplants performed rose form 11,922 to 16,580, an increase of only 39 percent. This means there’s a growing gap between the number of organs available and the number of people who need them. And the need for tissues for transplantation is growing dramatically. Tissue transplants include cornea, bone, tendon, ligament, vein, and heart valve and are used to help hundreds of thousands of recipients annually.
Each year, there are only a limited number of possible organ donors–people who die in such a way that their organs are still functioning. But only about one-third of these are used for transplants.
Why is that? The main reason is that only 20 percent of adults carry signed organ donor cards. Generally, the rest simply forget or decline because they’ve never thought about it. Another factor might be unwillingness to think about dying. In a sense, when you agree to donate your organs, you’re recognizing the fact that you won’t live forever.
Surviving relatives of potential donors can consent to donation after the death of their loved one, but in this period of grieving most of them don’t remember to do it. So signing and carrying an organ and tissue donor card, witnessed by your next of kin, is the surest way to make certain your organs and tissues are used in the event of your death. If you do not have a driver’s license, you can obtain a Uniform Donor Card from the American Red Cross or a local organ procurement organization.
Making Deposits at the Blood Bank
According to the American Red Cross, you are eligible to give blood if you are 18 years or older (or 17 years, if you have a signed American Red Cross consent form). You must weight at least 105 pounds and not have given blood within the last eight weeks. Blood is collected at regional hospitals and community centers operated by the Red Cross and institutional members of the American Association of Blood Banks. Unfortunately, only about 8 million people give blood each year–about 10 percent of those who are eligible.
Safe to Give and to Receive
The Red Cross and other blood banks have several safeguards to make sure blood is safe both to give and receive. When you give blood, you will be asked privately about intravenous drug use, HIV test results, and a high-risk sexual behavior. These questions are designed to prevent collecting blood from people who have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. After your blood is collected, it is tested for HIV. Because of these combined safeguards, the risk of contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion is very low: Some experts now estimate the odds to be somewhere between one on 60,000 and one in 250,000.
Before you give blood, you will also be asked about other illnesses or medical conditions that might contaminate the blood supply or make blood donation unsafe for you. Trained staff members will take a drop of your blood and measure the iron content to make sure you’re not anemic and check your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature to make sure you’re generally in good health.
When you give blood, you’ll lie on a cot, and a sterile, non-reusable needle will be used to draw blood. Just under a pint is taken, and that leaves you with plenty–most men have 10 to 12 pints of blood; most women have 8 to 9 pints.
Afterward, you may get juice and snacks to help your body adjust to the change in fluid volume. It takes the body less than 24 hours to replenish its lost fluid. (However, it takes about six weeks to replace the red blood cells, which is why you must wait eight weeks between donations.)
It is impossible to contract AIDS or any other disease by donating blood. All equipment used to draw blood is sterile and disposable, and the site on the skin from which blood is drawn is thoroughly cleansed. A new needle is ued with each donor, so you can’t be contaminated.
What Happens to Your Blood
After blood is collected, it undergoes a number of tests. The blood bank first determines the blood type to make sure that the lood is properly matched to the person rteceiving it.
There are four major blood groups: A, B, AB, and O, and each of these groups may be either positive or negative for Rh factor. The blood bank aslo tests the blood for antibodies to infectious diseases, such as AIDS and some forms of hepatitis, which could otherwise be transmitted to the recipient.
Sometimes, donated blood is given directly to people who have lost large quantities of blood, in the form of “whole blood” transfusions. More often, however, it is separated into components such as red blood cells, plasma, cryoprecipitate, coagulation factor, granulocytes, and platelets. In this graway, patients get only those blood components they need. For instance, red blood cells are sometimes used to treat some forms of anemia. Plasma, cryoprecipitate, and coagulation factor are used to treat various blood-clotting disorders, such as hemophilia.
One of the reasons the blood supply in the United States is so safe is that only a very small percentage of it is paid for. Studies have shown that blood collected from unpaid volunteers is less likely to be contaminated than blood people sell to blood banks. By volunteering to donate blood, you can help to ensure a clean, healthy blood supply.
Giving yo Your Community
Getting your driver’s license is just one “rite of passage” into adulthood. Adulthood carries other responsibilities, such as contributing to the common good. Like voting, carrying an organ donor card and donating your blood are ways of doing your part for your community.