Patient Care Transplant Surgery

Blood Donation: What, How and Why

Blood is an essential tissue in the body and also an essential resource for surgeons when performing life-saving procedures. Blood donation is the only way surgeons can receive the blood necessary to help patients who have suffered injuries or conditions that deplete their own blood supply.

What is Blood Donation?

Blood is a specialized type of connective tissue that travels through the circulatory system to distribute nutrients, oxygen and other molecules throughout the body to the millions of cells that need them. It is a liquid that also transports specialized immune cells to defend tissues from infection and disease. Because it has such vital roles in the body, blood is essential to helping save lives in surgery. Any body cells or region deprived of circulating blood may die in mere minutes.

Blood donation is the process through which blood is acquired from donors to be processed and later distributed to patients who need it. An average blood donation will be one pint of whole blood. Donors are non-patient people who are healthy and able to volunteer for donation of blood or other blood components, such as platelets or plasma.  

One aspect of blood donation that many people are familiar with are blood type and blood type matching. People have different blood types, designated within the ABO blood groups and “negative” or “positive” Rhesus blood groups. Blood type can be tested through a simple test at a medical office. It is important for doctors to know the type of donated blood, because a recipient/patient needs to have a matching blood type so that their body does not have an adverse reaction to the donated blood.

There are also multiple types of blood donation. Donors can opt into whole blood, double red cell, platelet or plasma donation. These types retrieve either full blood content or certain cells in the blood fluid, and they are necessary for different medical procedures to fit the needs of a recipient/patient. Most healthy adults can complete any of these donations with no adverse effects to their own health.

How Do I Donate Blood?

National, regional and local groups exist through which you can donate blood. One of the most commonly recognized organizations is the American Red Cross, which provides blood services to hospitals nationally. Donors can seek out this or other donation organizations to find events and locations where they can donate. Appointments and walk-ins are possible at most locations.

There are some important how-to’s for donation:

  1. Find a blood drive and make an appointment. Choose the type of blood donation you want to make and choose a convenient time.
  2. If possible, have a donation buddy! You can support each other during and after the process.
  3. Plan for the process of donation by resting, hydrating and eating well the day before you donate. Prioritize high iron foods in the time before your appointment.
  4. On the day of your donation, wear clothing that will allow access to your inner elbows, where the blood will be drawn.
  5. At your appointment, have identification, proof of your appointment and any information about health and medications that will be necessary to report for eligibility.
  6. After donating, rest for fifteen or more minutes as your body recovers from donation. Eat a snack and drink water to replenish, as well.
  7. Plan to drink an extra four cups of water throughout the day of donation and avoid alcohol until the following day.

There are certain eligibilities necessary to donate blood. Some of the major requirements of donors include having good health history, not having certain long-term conditions like cancer, and minimum height and weight (depending on the type of donation). Other circumstances that impact eligibility can be found on the American Red Cross website. There are also waiting periods for when you can donate again; typically, you must wait eight weeks between donations, unless you are donating special cells, which can increase or decrease wait time.

The blood donation process from the time you arrive until the time you leave takes about an hour. The donation itself is only about 8-10 minutes on average.

Why Should I Donate?

Blood is essential for certain surgeries and life-saving procedures. Donation provides this resource to physicians and their patients who will receive donor blood. It is especially important for those with rare blood types and the “universal donor,” those with O negative blood, which can be matched to patients with any blood type. Donating blood once can save the lives of three people and will have no longer-term effect on the donor’s health.

Chart that illustrates the different blood types of blood donor and patient who receives blood, what combinations are suitable for a transfusion.
Illustration demonstrating how different blood types from donors can be matched to recipient patients.

The American Red Cross emphasizes that donating blood is essential to community health. The need for blood donations is a constant, because blood is used for treating patients in a variety of settings, including those suffering from cancer, traumatic injuries, sickle cell and severe burns. Blood transfusions are also an important part of the lifesaving transplant procedures performed at transplant centers.

William Chapman, MD, is the surgical director of the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center and an advocate for donation. Chapman is a leader in transplantation, and he was consulted by National Geographic on the recent decrease in blood and organ donations at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to encourage everyone who can to donate blood,” Chapman emphasizes. Transplants and other emergent procedures rely on blood donations, and the American Red Cross is making it easier to give by offering an appointment-based system for donation.

“Blood supply is something we need for all of our patients,” Chapman says. “We will get through this together. We are working to keep our patients safe. Seeing a patient completely restored to health after surgery is the most rewarding aspect of surgery, and that relies on healthy people donating blood.”

Donation and Washington University

The Department of Surgery thanks all donors for their contributions to our care for patients. Our Sections of Transplant Surgery, Cardiac Surgery and Acute and Critical Care Surgery among others treat patients who often need blood donations for successful recovery. To learn more about the work of these teams, please visit their web pages above.

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