Originally created 08/28/99

Blood donors save lives



AIKEN -- A syringe pricked Christine Huizar's arm, and crimson oozed into the plastic pouch dangling below her chair.

And in less than 10 minutes, the 24-year-old biology major saved someone's life.

She hadn't planned to donate a pint of blood on Friday, but on the way to Vinson's law firm to visit friends, Ms. Huizar saw the American Red Cross bloodmobile -- a sure sign that nurses were drawing blood.

And it's probably a good thing that Ms. Huizar and about 50 more like her decided to sacrifice about 45 minutes of their day to give. Local recruitment agents anticipate another shortage after the Labor Day weekend.

AAA says Labor Day traffic will reach its second-highest figures ever. An estimated 34.8 million Americans are expected to travel 100 miles or more over the holiday -- a 2 percent increase from last year. And that means only two things to Tammi O'Cain, who recruits blood donors: lots of car accidents and blood transfusions.

"We've had a really good day," Ms. O'Cain said, "especially since about half were first-time donors.

Blood supplies in Georgia and South Carolina dropped to dangerously low levels in July, leaving many hospitals with just a half-day's supply. It was the second time this year Georgia's blood supply fell to critical levels. Red Cross officials made a public appeal in January, when officials said supplies hit a 22-year low.

And the crimson crunch is being felt nationally, too. Blood donations are dropping so low that serious, nationwide shortages could hit as early as next year, Ms. O'Cain said.

The government is so concerned that Surgeon General David Satcher has a committee hunting ways to get more people to donate blood more often. They are considering incentives like giving donors time away from work or small rewards like T-shirts. Participants of Aiken's blood drive got the routine cookies and juice and a little pin shaped like a drop of blood.

But rewards don't matter to Ms. Huizar, by now a pro at giving blood. She was a first-time giver at age 19 while enlisted in the Marine Corps.

"I figure it's the right thing to do," she said. "I might need it back one day."

Why are donations dropping? Nobody really knows, although blood banks say younger generations have never shown the enthusiasm of post-World War II donors. About 60 percent of Americans are estimated to be eligible donors, but only 5 percent donate.

That percentage alone puts blood banks in a quandary because every 10 seconds someone needs blood. The most needed blood type is "O Negative" because it can be given to anyone in an emergency. The second most needed is "O Positive" because it's the most prevalent.

Friday's blood drive was organized by Jenny Culbreath, who wanted to give something back to the organization who she says helped her son, Robbie, so much.

Mr. Culbreath, a 26-year-old Aiken County native, was diagnosed in 1995 with chronic myelogenous leukemia -- a cancer that attacks bone marrow. At the time, he was waiting tables to finance a degree in physics at Southern Polytechnic State University.

Doctors had searched the national registry monthly for two years with no luck. And the American Red Cross organized a marrow drive for him two years ago in Aiken.

The miracle Mr. Culbreath needed came on a cool December morning when the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was a nurse from Crawford Long Hospital at Emory University with news that a marrow donor had been found.

His operation was successful, but the tide turned four months later when a fungal infection took hold. Unable to overcome it, Mr. Culbreath, then 28, died at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Since then, his mother has been active in Red Cross blood drives. She says that even though her son eventually died, he survived longer than he could have without blood donated by people he never knew.

Chasiti Kirkland can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.