Got red blood cells?

Sixty percent of people will need a blood transfusion in their lifetime, but only 5 percent of people donate blood on average, according to United Blood Services.

“Thank God for that 5 percent who donate,” says Mary Jo Larsen, community relations representative for United Blood Services. “Actually, about 7 percent donate in this area. That extra 2 percent makes a big difference.”

But despite the higher donor rate in northern Nevada, shelves with blood ready to go out are nearly empty. The in-demand blood types, such as my type, O-negative, are empty.

That’s why I allowed the Truckee Meadows’ only blood bank to hook me up to a machine to donate two pints of red blood cells. In a process called red blood cell apheresis, blood is extracted and the red blood cells and most of the plasma are separated from each other. The plasma is then put back into the donor, along with a saline solution. Once two pints of red blood cells have been collected, the process is done. The machine takes about a half-hour to complete its cycle.

The benefit of apheresis is that hospitals get two pints of the same red blood cells to put into one patient while performing surgery.

“One patient receives both units,” Larsen says. “The patient then doesn’t have to fight off as many antibodies. Nurses know they can be a little less vigilant with the second pint of blood because they know there will be no reaction.”

For those who may be worried about the pain involved, pulling out a single hair hurts more. There are two needles involved, one tiny needle on your finger or ear during the interview process, which tests for anemia—or lack of iron in the blood. The other is the extraction needle. In the apheresis process, the needle is smaller than the needle used to extract whole blood.

The whole blood process is still the primary method of blood extraction at United Blood Services. The donation takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Because whole blood is being taken out, the blood bank can only take out one pint per donation.

Whether donating via apheresis or giving whole blood, it’s clear that United Blood Services needs more. Larsen says, "If everybody in the donor base gave one more time …"