MUSC Health encourages blood donations in face of national shortage

January 14, 2022
closeup of a hand squeezing a ball while blood flows through a tube from the arm
Doctors are asking community members to roll up their sleeves to give blood. Photos by Sarah Pack

Whether it’s someone losing blood because of injuries from a car crash or a child with sickle cell disease who needs a transfusion, donated blood is critical to modern medicine.

In Charleston alone, MUSC Health goes through 500 units of blood each week. But blood supplies are alarmingly low, so much so that MUSC Health and The Blood Connection held a joint press conference Thursday urging people to donate and to organize blood drives. Earlier in the week, the American Red Cross announced a “national blood crisis,” citing the worst shortage in a decade.

“This is the most serious blood supply situation I have seen in 30 years of blood banking. But it’s fairly simple to fix. All we need are blood donors. We need an hour of your time every few months, that’s all,” said Jerry Squires, M.D., Ph.D., medical director for the transfusion service at MUSC Health-Charleston Division.

Each donor generates one unit of blood. But fewer blood donors, whether because of canceled blood drives due to COVID-19 or fears of exposure to the virus, has meant that blood collection organizations are struggling to supply hospitals. Wintry weather in the Upstate this weekend will mean canceled blood drives, which will further affect the supply in the Carolinas and Georgia, The Blood Connection pointed out. It expects to collect 40% less blood than what hospitals need in the next 30 days.

“As a general surgeon, having blood readily available is critical. Sometimes it’s not only to have blood to replenish somebody who’s lost blood – for example, in a trauma patient – but something as simple as reversing the effects of blood thinners to allow us to do a procedure safely. It helps us get patients safely through those procedures,” explained Hatem Abdallah, M.D., medical director for robotic surgery at MUSC Health-Florence Division.

As a specialist in minimally invasive robotic surgery, he doesn’t use blood products as often as surgeons doing open procedures. But, he said, when it’s needed, it’s critical that it’s available.

“If you don’t have it available, it becomes a big problem for the patient,” he said. “It makes a huge impact on the patient’s care. It can delay care; it can prolong things. It can increase morbidity.”

Just such an example of delayed care has played out in Charleston. Derek DuBay, M.D., chief of the Transplant Integrated Center of Clinical Excellence, said a liver transplant and a heart transplant were both canceled because there wasn’t enough blood to carry out the operations.

 a woman in blue scrubs sits in a lounge chair while donating blood 
Nurse Tracy Pennycuff donates in a bloodmobile in this photo from 2020, prior to mask requirements on the MUSC Health campus.

Michelle Hudspeth, M.D., director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at MUSC Children’s Health and director of Adult and Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Hollings Cancer Center, said that for her patients who need blood transfusions, blood is the only thing that can help.

“I don’t have a substitute. This isn’t an antibiotic that I can pull another drug from the shelf, and it will all be fine. It won’t be fine. We simply don’t have a substitute,” she said.

MUSC Health is hosting blood drives in the coming weeks at its campuses in Charleston, Florence and Lancaster. In addition, both the American Red Cross and The Blood Connection are hosting blood drives across the state.

Terri Botti, divisional director at The Blood Connection for the coastal region, urged the public not only to donate but to organize blood drives and encourage family and friends to donate.

“Any business, church, gym, HOA, community center or school can host a blood drive. All we need is a space and donors. We'll take care of the logistics. We are urging everyone to please consider where you can host a blood drive and give us a call,” she said.