Options for fixed-site blood donations shrink in Alexandria as need increases

Options for fixed-site blood donations shrink in Alexandria as need increases
Photo/Sarah Taylor Alexandria Legislative Director Sarah Taylor has been donating blood since she was a child but found a new understanding of its importance when a blood infusion saved her life after losing three quarters of her blood during a miscarriage in 2013.

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

One night in 2013, Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, woke up in the middle of the night in a pool of blood with little sense of how dire the situation was.

Only later, after being rushed to the hospital and losing almost three quarters of her blood, did Taylor learn she was unknowingly pregnant and had suffered a miscarriage. Taylor recalled sitting in the ambulance as it pulled over on the side of Interstate 240, skating the edge of consciousness.

“I remember sitting on the side of the road thinking, ‘I am about to die,’” Taylor said. “I was just planning my kid’s first birthday party, and I’m going to die here on the side of the road on I-240.”

Taylor survived the incident after receiving seven to eight units of transfused blood and has since become a vocal advocate for blood donations.

“I had surgery and survived to tell the tale, but that donor literally is what saved my life and made it so a couple weeks later we had my son’s first birthday party, a couple years later, [we] had our daughter,” Taylor said. “ … It’s what saved my life; it’s what saved my family.”

Despite the importance of donated blood, and a recent crisis during which the Red Cross pleaded for more donors, there is currently no fixed location in Alexandria where residents can donate blood. The Red Cross previously operated an office at 123 N. Alfred St., but shut down the site last year.

“The Red Cross often holds open-to-the-public mobile blood drives several times a week at various humanitarian services office locations across the DMV. This was the case at 123 [N.] Alfred St. in Alexandria, VA – until September 2021, when the facility became over-sized for our needs,” Ashley Henyan, communications director of the Red Cross’ National Capital and Greater Chesapeake Region, said in an email.

Resident Rod Kukro, who has been donating blood for about 40 years, said he gave at the Alexandria Red Cross site regularly and is concerned about the implications of its closure.

“A city of this size should have some place you’d think that people could go because it’s an altruistic thing, right?” Kukro said. “… The universe of people who do it is pretty small, and now a lot of those people may fall off the radar or decide it’s not worth the hassle to drive out to Centreville, Virginia to do something that used to be fairly convenient in the city.”

The need for blood donations remains high, so Alexandria’s lack of an ongoing donation facility is particularly puzzling. According to the Red Cross, someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds. Although the Red Cross was able to collect enough supply over the last few months to abate the national blood crisis it announced in January, the organization has experienced a 10% decline in the number of people donating blood nationally since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Inova Health System, which operates Alexandria Hospital, has experienced a similar decline in donor numbers. Kukro said he previously donated blood at Alexandria Hospital, but that ongoing donations ceased at that site about 10 years ago. Currently the only ongoing Inova sites where donors can sign up and give blood are in Annandale, Sterling and Centreville.

According to Kevin Giambi, marketing manager for Inova’s blood donor services, Inova has had to become more engaged in educating people about the value of donating blood.

“I think the funniest thing is that most people don’t understand that blood is for more than just a trauma or accident,” Giambi said. “It’s far more routine, and that’s why we really have to be on top of our game at all times. Platelets, plasma, [and] red cells can be used for anything from helping someone go through cancer treatment to a routine surgery.”

Inova does have a mobile blood drive that goes to each of its hospitals, including the Alexandria hospital, every other month. Giambi said Inova has hosted about 30 mobile drives in Alexandria this year, but they are primarily pop-up donation drives or collaborations with specific businesses and organizations.

“That can be almost anywhere in Alexandria, but oftentimes we’re putting those drives in populated areas or where businesses are doing a little bit of the work for us, where they’re saying, ‘Hey, we’ll bring you 30 people no matter what,’” Giambi said.

Residents can visit www.inovablood.org to set up appointments at fixed donation sites and see a list of Inova’s upcoming mobile blood drives. The mobile donation signup option seems to be working, though a map services error message appears when donors attempt to sign up online to give at a fixed site. Donors can still register if they scroll below the error message.

In addition, the following message, outdated by more than a year, is at the top of Inova’s blood donation page: “To facilitate social distancing, there are expanded operating hours for CentreMed Donor Center, Dulles Donor Center and Woodburn Donor Center between now through the end of February, 2021.”

Due to high demand in Alexandria, Inova is exploring the potential for a pop-up blood drive location in the city that would stay at a dedicated location for a couple of weeks.

“To be perfectly honest, we are looking at a potential pop-up of just a week or two in the city of Alexandria because we are noticing far more engagement from that population, as well as from Arlington,” Giambi said. “It’s really an area we’re trying to focus on and help.”

However, despite the ongoing need for donated blood – according to Giambi, Inova’s goal is 240 donors per day – and the clear desire for Alexandrians to donate, Inova still does not have a dedicated donation location in the city.

Kukro said he was particularly disappointed in the loss of the local Red Cross office, at which he donated throughout the pandemic.

“I remember going there during the pandemic to give blood because it was just more convenient than waiting for a blood drive, and they were really fastidious about all of the protocols. The bonus was that once you gave your blood, they tested it for COVID,” Kukro said.

The Red Cross maintains fixed blood donation sites at nine locations around the DMV, including in D.C. and Fairfax County, and operates blood drives at its other regional humanitarian services locations in Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and Delaware. To find nearby Red Cross drives, residents can enter their zip code on the Red Cross’ website.

However, with fewer options in Alexandria, Kukro said he has found it more difficult to secure an appointment. In the past, Kukro would go to a blood donation center on the way back from playing tennis at the Fairfax Racquet Club. Now, he said there are fewer appointment slots.

“The problem is if you go to these websites and try to get an appointment, as they’ve shrunk the number of places you can give, it’s harder to get an appointment that will fit your schedule,” Kukro said.

Taylor has started donating blood at Inova’s Woodburn location in Annandale, but she emphasized the value of making local drives available and accessible.

“Whatever we can do to make it easy for people to do it and to do it regularly, that’s really where I think the time and energy and investment is well spent,” Taylor said