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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Blood Centers In Dire Need Of Donations

Chuck Quirmbach
Platelet donor Valerie Sauve at the Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin, near Marquette University.

A health warning related to the coronavirus comes from the Milwaukee-based Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin: Officials say blood drives are being canceled and the impact of possible blood shortages on hospitals and patients could be severe.

Versiti says it’s the exclusive provider of blood and blood products to more than 50 hospitals in 29 counties. Hospitals in the Milwaukee area include St. Luke’s, Children’s and Froedtert. The center says it provides more than 230,000 units of blood every year. A unit is roughly one pint.

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The Blood Center periodically puts out an urgent call for more donors. But Chief Medical Officer Thomas Abshire says he’s never seen anything like the current need.

“This is unprecedented. It’s unprecedented in the sense that, if you remember a hurricane hitting the South, or 9/11, that was a localized area of the country. This is globally," Abshire said.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
Dr. Thomas Abshire speaks at a Versiti news briefing.

Typically, he says the Blood Center has a three-to-five day supply of blood and blood products on hand. But with more than 80 community blood drives canceled in hopes of limiting the spread of COVID-19, he says that means about 3,000 blood donations won’t be coming in.

"The reason why we’re calling this a crisis is we’re very concerned about the influx of blood coming in that we need this weekend and the following week," Abshire said.

Versiti Blood Center Chief Medical Officer Thomas Abshire speaks with Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski.

Dr. David Margolis is with Children’s Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin. He says blood units are needed during some types of surgery. Even though some elective surgeries are being postponed, there are trauma cases caused by things like gunshot wounds and car accidents.

But Margolis, who cares for children with cancer, says many other patients also need blood products like platelets. Those are the tiny blood cells that help the body form clots to stop bleeding.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
Dr. David Margolis speaks at a Versiti news briefing.

"One of my bone marrow transplant patients needs a platelet transfusion every three to 10 days. Our cancer chemotherapy patients need a red cell transfusion —often it's every two to three weeks. That adds up," Margolis said.

Margolis is urging more citizens to donate blood. He says he did so at Versiti this week.

“It was safe. I felt good. I had my temperature taken before I walked in, and I had a V8 [juice] when I left," Margolis said.

The Blood Center says the taking of temperature is part of additional screening of donors. Other precautions during the coronavirus outbreak include keeping donor beds 6 feet apart or separated by a partition. Only packaged snacks are served in the building cafe, and the temperature of the Blood Center staff is checked every day.

Certainly, some people are donating. During a visit to Versiti by WUWM this week, a female donor named Valerie Sauve was hooked up to a machine called an automated blood collection system. The Blood Center’s Denise Dembosky explains what the machine was doing.

“We are pulling a blood draw from her — whole blood. And we are centrifuging and packing just her platelets. It’s a draw and return process for about 90 minutes. And what we do is return the red cells and the plasma," Dembosky said.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
The automated blood collection system machine used at Versiti.

The plasma is basically the liquid part of blood, which makes up about half the volume.

Sauve sat on a recliner with two blankets over her and read a book. She says she donates about every other month because it’s the right thing to do.

“I have the ability to do it, and it makes a difference for people that need platelets — especially those who are going through various treatments and platelets is the best alternative for them," Sauve said.

Sauve says she occasionally feels a little weak after donating platelets. But she says the Blood Center gives her a soft drink and finds other ways to help.

“I get blankets and if I wanted to, I could have a video screen and watch movies, or anything. I just prefer to read a book," Sauve said.

Still, Sauve says she realizes that during the COVID-19 outbreak, not everyone feels comfortable or able to make a blood donation. But for those who can donate, she says, “We all have to take care of each other. As a community, and a society.”

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


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