When the gift of life stops flowing

Todd Bechard has been giving blood since he was a teenager, recently tallying his 150th donation. Photo: Submitted

As pandemic fears and wild weather keep people home, the need for blood donations grows

Omicron and blasts of wintry weather are leaving local blood donation clinics with hundreds of empty appointments.

It’s not yet an emergency as in the U.S., where in January the Red Cross declared its first “blood crisis” as Omicron, the new, fast-spreading COVID-19 variant, slowed donations.

But Kathy Gracie, associate regional director for Atlantic Canada for Canadian Blood Services, says the next couple of weeks are critical.

“Our immediate call right now is to try and avoid our inventory getting to urgent levels,” she says. “We probably have a two-week window to turn this around and get people out and donating so we can ensure that we have enough blood. Now is the time to step up.”

At the end of January, Halifax’s Bayers Road clinic had 725 empty appointments for February. They started to fill up after Canadian Blood Services put out pleas locally and nationwide. But with only two weeks left in February, the clinic still had 454 spots to fill.

For all four Atlantic provinces as of mid-February, the non-profit charitable organization has 3,510 appointments to fill until the end of March. “That is a big number,” says Gracie. She estimated the open appointments are about double a typical year.

COVID restrictions, such as social distancing, mean donors must make an appointment instead of simply dropping into a clinic. The surge in coronavirus cases in the region has made some blood clinic staffers and donors unable to go to clinics because they have COVID or must self isolate because of a possible exposure.

“With winter storms, it’s not unusual for us to have an urgent call come out, but this year with the added COVID-19 wave on top of it, it’s challenged us like never before,” Gracie says. “Many donors are affected this time and many staff members are affected this time. With this recent wave, the spread has been more than in the past, especially here in Atlantic.”

Gracie says the last time she remembers a similar scramble was a few years ago when the length of time between donations for women was extended from eight to 12 weeks to allow for their iron levels to get replenished. “That had a huge impact on our donor base. The majority of our donors are women,” she says.

The pandemic and wintry weather haven’t dissuaded Todd Bechard, who this month hit a milestone of 150 donations of whole blood, plasma, platelets and stem cells.

“I have a vague memory of donating when I was 17 or 18 when I was in school in Toronto,” says Bechard, a Halifax-based commercial-real estate consultant and investor. “I don’t think I seriously started until the early-to-mid 1990s when I worked at Maritime Life. I was organizing the clinics and we were getting 50 or 100 donors at a time.”

His son, who’s attending university in upstate New York, was diagnosed with an immune deficiency  about four years ago and needs regular infusions of a product made from many blood donations.

But Bechard says his motivation wasn’t about someone specific. “It was never because I knew someone who needed blood. It was just easy. I could do it. I could donate plasma once a week.”

Berchard likes to encourage others to donate, including a friend he had lunch with a couple of weeks ago. “He says he’d donated in the past but just never thinks of making an appointment. I says, ‘My next appointment is coming up and you can come with me.’ ”

Catching COVID at a clinic should not be a concern, he added. “Everyone’s wearing a mask. The people who work there are wearing PPE. It’s cleaner than it’s ever been.”

VITAL STATISTICS

  • One in every two people in Canada 17 or older are eligible to donate blood, plasma or platelets. Only one in 81 do.
  • Atlantic Canada has 33,682 active donors, Canada has 350,999.
  • Atlantic Canada accounts for 6.6% of the Canadian population, but 9.5% of blood donations. 
  • Women represent nearly 56% of donors in Atlantic Canada, and 52% nationally.

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