BLOOD: Bypassing mother nature and Harvard

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The morning of Feb. 2 was among the most stressful of Lisa Tran’s ’12 life.

The winter blitz that struck campus earlier had wreaked havoc on shuttle routes. It had caused many professors to cancel classes; it had left students slipping and sliding across icy walkways. But the bigger problem for Tran was that the storm had made Wednesday’s blood drive efforts impossible.

For five hours that morning, Tran, the President of American Red Cross at Yale, scrambled to reconfigure the logistics for Wednesday’s portion of the annual Yale Harvard Blood Drive Challenge. The event, which pits Yale and Harvard against each other in friendly competition to see who can collect the most donations, was slated to run Monday through Thursday. More than 500 Yale donors were scheduled to give blood between Monday morning and Thursday evening. But the drastic winter weather had foiled those plans overnight.

Tran moved quickly, notifying Wednesday’s donors via e-mail that their appointments would be cancelled, negotiating with the Red Cross to extend the drive an additional day, and spreading the word to students. Continuing the drive was especially important at a time when the American Red Cross had already announced a nationwide shortage in blood collections — the combined impact of the severe weather storms that plagued the country during January and February.

So Yale responded.

BEATING HARVARD

Tran and fellow members of the University’s Red Cross chapter scheduled additional hours for Thursday’s drive and created new appointments on Friday. Yale College Dean Mary Miller e-mailed all undergraduates the evening of Feb. 2, encouraging them to sign up for Friday slots and turn out for the drive, telling them that “even conditions like these cannot freeze the warmth of Bulldog spirit.”

The efforts seemed to work. More than 250 people scheduled donations for Thursday and Friday, and Tran said appointments spiked after Miller’s e-mail plea for undergraduates to support the drive.

Students poured into the Afro-American Cultural Center, which was hosting the event. Soon, organizers began turning donors away because they were simply over capacity. Tran said a member of the Connecticut Red Cross chapter told her Yale’s efforts had “single-handedly saved the Connecticut Red Cross blood drive.”

Better yet, Yale beat Harvard.

The Bulldogs collected 188 pints of blood in the same amount of time that the Crimson brought in 161 pints. While Yale’s extra hours on Thursday and Friday didn’t count toward the competition, as Harvard had been unable to extend its drive, the additional days ultimately helped Yale collect 236 pints of blood for the Red Cross.

And so Yale avenged its loss to its archrival from the previous year’s competition. Miller — who was forced to don a Harvard shirt and hat after last year’s defeat — reclaimed her dignity. Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds will soon lose hers when she takes a turn at wearing Yale gear. A date has not yet been set, but American Red Cross at Yale sent the Bulldog clothing to Cambridge before the drives began.

“That’s great news, that’s fabulous!” Miller said, after learning of Yale’s victory from the News Wednesday night. “I can’t wait to see Dean Hammonds wear all that Yale gear in our honor.”

The number of students and other Yale community members pouring into the drive each day kept Red Cross workers going full-time to accommodate participants. Despite those efforts, the event’s organizers just couldn’t keep pace with the stream of donors.

Yale had 552 individuals schedule appointments to give blood over the course of the four-day drive. Of those people, 356 arrived and signed in to the drive (though not all stayed long enough to give blood), while 63 were turned away for health reasons.

“It was frustrating, to be honest,” said Yassmin Parsaei ’13, vice president of American Red Cross at Yale. “It wasn’t frustrating that there were so many people … what was frustrating was that we didn’t have enough resources for everyone who wanted to be able to donate blood.”

In the afternoon, one girl came in determined to donate, Parsaei said. An athlete, she was only able to donate blood on Thursday because of her practice schedule. (Giving blood is physically draining, and the Red Cross discourages people from exercising, consuming alcohol or pursuing other strenuous activities for the rest of the day after donating). The girl pushed through the lines and argued with Red Cross workers, Parsaei said, but was unable to get an appointment. It was just too full.

Amir Ameri ’13 was among the would-be donors turned away. Ameri had heard about the drive from Miller’s e-mail and showed up around 5:00 p.m. on Thursday — nervous about his first ever donation, he said — but was refused a spot in the oversubscribed drive.

“I think it’s a shame that some people weren’t able to donate, because obviously there’s a huge need right now,” Ameri said. “Here you have all these potential donors, and they were turned away.”

The drive was at maximum capacity much of the time, Tran said, adding that Thursday slots filled up completely from 1:00 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. With six to nine beds available throughout the event, Red Cross workers were able to draw blood from approximately eight donors every 15 minutes.

The actual donation process takes between ten and 15 minutes, Tran said. Most donors give a full pint of blood, but some people stop donating early if they feel queasy, faint or sick during the process. An average of two individuals pass out each year, Tran added.

After the procedure, participants helped themselves to food and drinks. Better yet, each received a red or white helium balloon hand-decorated by Yale Red Cross members with “I donated blood today” stickers.

As the drive was taking place, Tran said she and other organizers barely worried about the competitive aspect of the event — they simply didn’t have time.

“Worrying about the details of the competition and what it meant for us was something we did before and afterwards,” Tran said. “When it came time for the actual blood drive, the focus was only on the donors and how to handle that.”

SNOW AND BALLOONS

Yalies weren’t just going up against Harvard this year. They were squaring off against the forces of nature and a nationwide shortage in blood donations.

The American Red Cross issued a national appeal in February dubbed “Recovery 2011” — an effort aimed at replenishing what the group has identified as the lowest blood supply in a decade. The shortage is now more than 30,000 units of uncollected donations and rising, according to the American Red Cross website.

One could almost call this the most crucial Harvard Yale blood drive in ten years, although the competition has only run for seven.

“It’s very important because Harvard and Yale are really leaders,” said Jake Weatherly, a junior at Harvard and co-coordinator of blood drives for Harvard College Red Cross. “If we can draw donors to our blood drive and show that students care about a nationwide health issue, hopefully we can be partners with other schools around the country who also want to hold blood drives and help the nationwide shortage.”

Harvard fell slightly short of its goal for donations this year, Weatherly said. The Cantabs aimed to collect 185 pints of blood, but ultimately brought in 161. Weatherly attributed the underperformance to the rough weather conditions and to the fact that students had just returned to campus after having the month of January as break — meaning there was little time to advertise the event.

On top of it all, there was the snow.

Some 38 inches of snow buried Boston in January, while southern Connecticut racked up 42 inches in January. The onslaught did not let up in either state the next month.

Despite the weather, there was enough enthusiasm on Harvard’s campus, Weatherly said. Last year, Harvard sold T-shirts for the blood drive with a slogan reading “Yale bleeds Crimson.”

“People get pretty hyped up,” he said. “People definitely get pumped up and get out their ‘Yale Fail’ shirts and try to give more blood than the Bulldogs.”

Back in New Haven, Tran and her colleagues had been publicizing the Yale drive for weeks before the event took place. Yale student organizers sent e-mails to undergraduates and tabled in residential colleges on Sunday (family) nights two weeks ahead of the drive.

Even before Wednesday’s cancellation, Dean Mary Miller had been on board, writing in a Yale College-wide e-mail that alerted students to the nationwide emergency blood shortage: “We’re doing OK, but we need your help.”

Indeed, the state’s blood supply is not self-supporting, said Paul Sullivan, CEO of American Red Cross Blood Services for the Connecticut region. The Constitution State relies on other states to send in blood to bolster the supplies in hospitals, importing more than 10,000 pints of blood a year, he said.

For Connecticut to have a fully self-sufficient supply, the state would need roughly 600 people to donate each day. That’s a lot of people, and right now Connecticutians are averaging just 530 donations a day.

All the more reason to step it up and beat Harvard.

“As you know, Yale plays Harvard in many sports this weekend,” Miller wrote on Feb. 1. “But you can help beat Harvard today, tomorrow and Thursday by competing for Yale in the Yale-Harvard Blood Drive Challenge.”

It’s hard to say just what kept the donors coming. Maybe it was the noble aim of helping our nation. Maybe it was the spirit of quasi-athletic competition. Possibly it was the sheer desire to beat Harvard, which needs no further explanation. Or maybe it was the balloons given out afterward — WEEKEND would give blood for balloons.

Regardless of the reason, the people came.

Josh Rubin ’14, who showed up for the drive on its second day, said the weather had caused a 20-minute backup when he arrived. But he waited it out to donate. Rubin’s suitemate, Connor Kenaston ’14, gave blood two days later.

“My suitemate guilted me into it,” Kenaston admitted, laughing.

A first-time donor, Kenaston said the process took about 45 minutes of his Thursday afternoon and that he’d be willing to donate another time.

And the balloons?

“Definitely made the experience,” he said.

ONE DONOR, THREE LIVES

You’ve donated. You’ve helped better a nationwide blood shortage. You’ve received your balloon, hand-decorated with those “I donated blood today” stickers. Congratulations.

What now?

Jacob Evelyn ’13, who has given blood multiple times, said he has never considered what happens to his blood after the actual donation.

“I’ve always sort of assumed that it goes to some place where they test it for things like HIV — at least that’s what the thing that I signed said they do — and it goes to a blood bank,” Evelyn said. “I guess it’s safe to say I don’t really know much about it.”

So WEEKEND asked around. Where exactly does all that blood go?

“Everything that gets collected in the state pretty much stays here because the state of Connecticut really isn’t self-sufficient for its blood supply,” explained Melanie Champion, laboratory manager for the Yale-New Haven Hospital Blood Bank. “You donate locally; it stays locally.”

Every donor has the potential to save three lives: that’s a maxim in the blood-banking world. In Connecticut, the majority of blood collected from drives is sent back to a donation center in Farmington. There, Champion said, the blood is sorted into various units. Red blood cells can help with anemia and oxygen problems; platelets, which aid clotting, are used in surgery and oncology, among other fields; plasma, the liquid component of blood, is also involved in coagulation and a variety of other processes.

Yale-New Haven Hospital uses approximately 25,000 pints of red blood cells a year, Champion said. The blood goes to everyone from transplant surgery patients, to “little teeny tiny babies” in the neonatal intensive care unit, she added.

“At Yale-New Haven, since we are a large academic medical center that has many different kinds of programs, there’s a wide-range usage,” Champion said.

During shortages, specific blood types see greater drops in supply than others. Type O negative (the universal donor type) always ends up in greatest demand, Champion said, while the need for Rh negative blood also rises, as only 15 percent of the population has this blood type.

“A shortage means we don’t have enough inventory on our shelves to have an adequate supply,” said Sullivan, the CEO of Connecticut’s American Red Cross Blood Services.

Champion said students are a particularly important component of the donor population, since they are typically among the healthiest individuals to come out for drives.

“We need them to help maintain a safe and adequate supply,” Champion said. “There are no substitutes that we can use instead of the human source, and we count on them very much to give.”

Elaine St. Peter, communications program manager for the Connecticut Blood Services Region of the American Red Cross, said in a Thursday e-mail that Yale’s drive provided “strong support” to the American Red Cross during a tough winter.

HEIGHTENED HYPE, LASTING IMPACT

Dean Miller’s e-mails, the added urgency of a nationwide shortage, the push to bring in donors after the unexpected cancellation — it seemed like the hype surrounding this year’s drive was higher than usual.

Tran and Parsaei (who are both in their first year of leadership for American Red Cross at Yale) said they did not think the advertising for the 2011 drive had significantly increased from 2010. But students still seemed to take note more this year.

“There was definitely a huge presence for the blood drive,” would-be donor Ameri said, adding that he did not remember much about last year’s drive in terms of advertising.

In terms of garnering attendees, another fact certainly seems to hold like a universal truth: give them stuff, and they will come.

Tran said in past years, American Red Cross at Yale has made custom T-shirts to give participants. This year, they had the balloons.

Evelyn, who donated on Friday, said he tries to donate blood as often as he can. He considers it a relaxing activity — lying down, listening to music and talking to Red Cross employees. Plus, he said, sometimes drives give out “free stuff.”

“I have, I think, four or five shirts that I’ve gotten from blood drives,” Evelyn said. “It’s a good deal. A pint of blood for every shirt.”

While raising awareness of the drive was important, Parsaei said a key factor this year was securing a host location. The events have been traditionally held at the First & Summerfield United Methodist Church at the corner of College Street and Elm Street. But starting last year the church asked Yale’s organizers to pay a fee of $3,000 for the space, a sum the nonprofit group could not afford.

Unable to hold the drive at the United Methodist Church last year, Tran said Toad’s Place agreed to host the event instead.

But the plans blew up — Red Cross employees refused to work in Toad’s, convinced it was unsanitary despite the venue’s thorough clean-up efforts, Tran said.

American Red Cross at Yale scrambled to find a new location after cancelling the first day. The results were lackluster; Yale lost to Harvard; Dean Miller donned Harvard’s cap and shirt.

“For the past few years we’ve had location issues,” Parsaei said. “We were trying to find a permanent location that could always host our drive because it gets very frustrating for donors to have to go to a different location every time.”

Now it looks like they may have found one.

St. Peter, the American Red Cross spokeswoman, said another Yale blood drive is scheduled for Apr. 4-6. The drive — which the Af-Am House will also host — will run from 1:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day.

Regardless of who runs the drives — Yale, Harvard, or any other organization — there’s no doubt that the effort counts. The combined 397 units of blood the Bulldogs and Cantabs collected will make a dent, however small, in the nationwide dearth of donations.

As Sullivan put it, there’s ultimately just one way to keep the supply up.

“The only way we get blood,” he said, “is literally one person rolling up their sleeve and giving it to someone else.”

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