Maine, New England step up during national blood shortage

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PORTLAND — Lying on a table, blood seeping through the needle and tube inserted into his arm at the Red Cross blood donation center on Forest Avenue, Austin Smith admitted he was once “terrified” of the process.

It’s good to face your fears, he said, and having done so, Smith, of Portland, has donated blood regularly for the last 33 years.

The Red Cross wishes it had a more donors like Smith, but this summer, it simply needs donors, period.

Summer typically means a drop in the productivity of the organization’s blood drives and collection centers, donor recruitment representative Tom Moore said. Schools and colleges, which often host blood drives during other seasons, are closed, families are on vacation, and hot weather keeps others indoors, he said.

This year, severe storms across the country in early July forced the organization to cancel blood drives due to lack of power, and the extreme temperatures have made it harder to reel in donors, Red Cross officials said.

A national appeal for donors went out in late June. The response has been good in the Northeast, but other regions have had disappointing collection numbers, donor recruitment manager Pete Morrison said Tuesday.

“Nationally the blood supply is not that great,” he said. Donations nationwide are at the lowest they have been in 15 years, and the Red Cross sent messages late last week announcing the extension of its appeal.

During the appeal, the Red Cross’ collection center at 524 Forest Ave. saw a spike in visits early on, nearly doubling the center’s average daily intake. On one Friday afternoon in mid-July, each of the five stations around Smith was occupied as a few donors, just completing the roughly hour-long process, snacked on cookies and ice cream, and others waited for tables to free up. 

Maintaining that volume as media attention wanes is a challenge, and appeals can’t last forever. “When you’re always saying, ‘It’s critical, it’s critical, it’s critical,’ eventually it falls on deaf ears,” Morrison said.

By this week, the numbers were still enough to please Morrison, though they had plateaued after the rush following the appeal’s announcement.

“We’re still maintaining a level that exceeds our regular July expectations,” he said.

In Maine, the Red Cross is the only organization collecting donated blood. It supplies 39 hospitals and other medical facilities across the state, which require 300 pints of blood a day, Moore said.

As much as 98 percent of the blood collected in Maine makes its way to the state’s medical facilities, Moore said. In times of crisis, more of the blood may be sent to other regions with higher need.

“We pride ourselves on blood without borders,” Morrison said, “so if someone in Georgia needs blood, we’re going to get it there.”

Morrison wasn’t sure how much blood donated by Mainers is being sent elsewhere this summer, he said, but “inevitably we are helping out the rest of the nation with our donations.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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Austin Smith of Portland waits for Red Cross staffer Jeremy Lowell to apply a bandage after giving blood last week. Smith has given regularly for 33 years, making him the kind of donor the Red Cross wishes it had all the time.