January is National Blood Donor Month in the United States, when the Red Cross and other blood banks honor and encourage those of us who take the time to give the gift of life. Every two seconds in America someone needs blood and its products, including people managing diseases, chemotherapy patients, hemorrhaging women in labor, newborns and trauma victims. Did you know that one car accident victim can use up to 100 pints of blood? The math is sobering: the average donation is just one pint, only 10% of the eligible population donates, and blood expires 42 days after its donation. As of yet, science can’t manufacture blood, so donation is the only way medicine can supply blood to those in need. Family caregivers, seniors, and homecare companions alike all (potentially) depend on the kindness of the strangers around us who donate regularly. When was the last time you donated blood?

Winter is the slowest season for blood donations, when bad weather cancels blood drives, and seasonal illnesses like the flu keep people temporarily out of the donation pool. The American Red Cross started observing National Blood Donor Month in January 1970 as a way to encourage eligible donors to begin a donation commitment along with the new year. To keep the blood supply fresh, 41,000 donations are need across the country every day from an active pool of just over 9 million donors. Fortunately, the ‘onslaught’ of El Nino doesn’t prevent Californians from stepping into the breach as donors this winter. Both the Red Cross and the San Diego Blood Bank run blood drives throughout the county all month long, and they all take donations at their multiple facilities by appointment. Other San Diego companies support blood drives, such as the Chargers, and Burger Lounge, who will give you a gift certificate for a hamburger if you donate blood on January 12th. Conditions like sickle cell anemia, thalassaemia, hemophilia, anemia, cancer, ectopic pregnancy, and a host of other diseases and accidents require blood, plasma or platelet transfusions, and these requirements don’t abate when the snow falls.

When you donate blood, you are actually donating four life-saving components: red blood cells, plasma, platelets, and cryoprecipitate. You can donate a pint of whole blood, which is then broken down into two or three components, every 56 days. You can also donate one specific component, such as platelets, in a process called apheresis, every seven days. Each component has a different shelf life, and therefore the need for each can vary depending on both supply and demand. Always in demand is blood type O negative, which is also known as the universal donor because people of all blood types can accept O negative transfusions. Those with AB positive blood, only 3% of the US population, are universal donors of plasma, which is used in emergency rooms, with newborns, and in response to massive blood loss. There are more blood groups than we realize, including one called Rh(null), and this story of ‘the man with the golden blood’ is a fascinating read about the ethics and logistics of extremely rare blood groups.

There are many reasons to donate blood, not least of which is the idea of paying it forward. You or a loved one may not need blood today, but fate is fickle, and it’s just not practical for most people to keep a supply of their own blood on hand. If you are looking for a way to give back this year, you believe in doing the right thing, or you’re the quiet type who really likes cookies and juice, then blood donation is for you.