Stupid Question ™
Sept. 6, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: My son heard a radio report about the shortage of blood donors. His question: Why can’t the blood from dead people be drained and reused like organs are?
—Kevin P. Byers
A: According to Dr. Harrison Weed of the Ohio State University Medical Center, it probably is possible to use blood drained from cadavers. But it isn’t practical.
For one thing, blood starts going bad soon after death. It becomes loaded with the waste products (including carbon dioxide and lactic acid) which in life it dumped into the lungs or kidneys. Its pH balance changes. It clots up.
Depending on how the person died, it could also be loaded with germs or viruses, medications or poisons.
These and other problems (such as aging and organ damage) also greatly restrict the organ-donor pool. According to Weed, “Almost all people who die are not organ donor candidates, and would therefore not be blood donor candidates.”
When a hospital does have an ideal organ donor—typically a healthy person who has received a fatal brain injury—it’s much more important to get the rare organs than it is to get the blood. And to keep the organs “alive,” you can’t remove the blood. “You need the blood perfusing those organs up to the last few seconds before you remove them,” Weed said.
Collected blood must also be tested and screened for diseases, a process that is very expensive, especially considering that taking blood from a corpse is a “one-time donation.”
“A living donor who gives regularly can give literally gallons [of blood] over a few years with much less fuss and muss,” said Weed. A much better solution to blood shortages, he said, is “more effort, money, time, celebration, etc. put into voluntary donation.”
And there is indeed a blood shortage. According to the American Red Cross, blood donation is increasing, but is being outpaced by demand. As of June, 15 of the Red Cross’s 36 distribution zones were at “critical” lows of type-O blood (the kind that can be used in any patient). It’s estimated that Southern California has a two-day blood supply.
Also, the importation of “Euroblood”—donations from Europe—is being curtailed to prevent the spread of a human strain of mad cow disease. The Red Cross expects to turn down about 4 percent of its 4 million donors for having spent large amounts of time in the UK or Europe.
And currently, 38 percent of donated blood is used by senior-aged patients, a demographic that will only grow larger in the next few decades.
Even without such demands, the Red Cross could use all available donors. They allow a donor to give one unit (a bag of blood) about every eight weeks (sometimes restricted further by local laws); a single car-crash victim can use 100 units.
If you’re interested in donating blood, you can contact the Red Cross at http://www.redcross.org/ or 800-448-3543.