By Brooks Jackson / Health Care Column

In early September, as Hurricane Dorian made its way toward the mainland United States after pummeling the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, the American Red Cross issued a call for increased blood donations – to ensure that hospitals had ample blood products for patients affected by the storm and also to compensate for a summer shortage of blood supplies.

Blood donations typically decline nationwide during the summer and winter months. For health care facilities in the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S., Dorian was doubly devastating to blood supplies in the area, creating increased need while also thwarting collection efforts. On Sept. 4, the Red Cross noted that the hurricane caused the cancellation of nearly 50 of its blood drives and donation centers in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

As a pathologist with a background in transfusion medicine, and as a leader for a major health system in the area, recognizing the value of – and need for – maintaining adequate blood supplies is an issue that’s never far from my mind. Whether it’s University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics or any hospital or health care facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or nearby communities, the need for blood and blood donations is critical and constant. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s often a matter of life or death.

In 1939, Elmer DeGowin opened the blood bank at University Hospital in Iowa City, approximately one year after starting the blood transfusion service at the hospital and less than two years after the founding of the nation’s first blood bank in Chicago. Dr. DeGowin and his colleagues from that era could not have imagined the tremendous impact blood banking and transfusion treatments would have on medical science and hospital-based care.

Now, 80 years later, the nation’s approximately 3,400 blood banks are such a vital part of patient care that it’s easy to overlook the crucial role they play in ensuring that blood supplies are safe and available when needed.

At UI Hospitals & Clinics – home to the state’s only Level 1 trauma designation for both adult and pediatric care, and where more than 33,000 major surgical operations are performed annually – approximately 24,000 blood products are used each year, making blood one of our most necessary and vital resources.

Each unit of blood, referred to as whole blood, is separated into multiple components – red blood cells, plasma and platelets, for example – and typically transfused to different patients with various medical conditions. Referred to as blood component therapy, it is an essential part of emergency treatments, transplant operations, obstetrics care and cancer therapy, among others. The Red Cross estimates that nearly 21 million blood components are transfused each year in the United States.

Blood supply safety also has improved dramatically over the past several decades. Screening tests for infectious diseases were not available when Dr. DeGowin established the first blood bank at Iowa eight decades ago. Many blood-borne diseases such as HIV were not yet known. HIV was particularly devastating in the 1980s, when tens of thousands of patients became infected through blood transfusions.

Today, the nation’s blood centers have comprehensive donor screening and testing protocols in place such as eligibility guidelines and questionnaires that gather information about donors’ health history, risky behaviors  and recent travel, as well as testing for infectious agents. As a result, our blood supply is now safer than ever.

Advances in blood banking and transfusion will continue in the coming years, but the ever-present challenge remains: ensuring an adequate supply of blood for hospitals. Blood and platelets cannot be manufactured; volunteer donors are the key. And yet only about 3 percent of the age-eligible population donate blood each year, according to the Red Cross.

We’ve all seen and participated in blood drives – at hospitals and medical clinics, at the mall, and even at some businesses and civic organizations. If you’ve ever donated blood or blood components, thank you. If you’re eligible but haven’t, please consider making a donation in the coming year. Talk to your colleagues and employers about ways to contribute as a company or group. You will provide an important service and lifesaving resource to your community and the area’s health care systems.

To contact the DeGowin Blood Center at UI Hospitals & Clinics, call (319) 356-2058, email degowin-blood-center@uiowa.edu or visit uihc.org/degowin-blood-center.

Brooks Jackson, MD, MBA, is University of Iowa vice president for medical affairs and the Tyrone D. Artz Dean of the UI Carver College of Medicine.