In search of valuable rare blood types

By Megan Hageman, Red Cross Volunteer

Every two seconds someone in the United States is in need of blood. In some cases people require a unique kind of blood that will be compatible with their own and won’t be rejected by their body. This is where the American Rare Donor Program comes in and helps to save lives.

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Since the 1960’s the American Red Cross has been partnering with the American Association of Blood Banks to provide patients with rare blood when they need it. A person’s blood is considered ‘rare’ if only one in 1,000 people or more lack the same antigens, and it is classified as ‘very rare’ if only one in 10,000 or more lack those antigens.

American Red Cross employee, Michele Hayes, has been working with the program for 22 years and is currently the director of the Immunohematology Reference Laboratory (IRL) for the Central Ohio Region.

“On a daily basis, the IRL technologists are testing individual donors for the lack of special red cell markers called antigens. Some of the antigens are highly prevalent in the population, making it very difficult to find someone who lacks the antigens. Other times, it is a combination of the lack of multiple antigens that make finding the special blood difficult,” Michele said.

Patients who are more likely to need rare blood donations include those with Sickle Cell Disease because they receive blood transfusions regularly as part of their treatment. They are, therefore, more likely to produce antibodies. Within the Central Ohio Region there are many hospitals with programs to treat these patients with Sickle Cell Disease, so finding rare donors is a primary focus for local Red Cross employees like Michele.

“Often, we will make special efforts to contact these rare blood donors so that we can provide up to 10 units of blood for one patient,” she said.

When a need arises for rare blood, members of the American Rare Donor Program can source it from existing donated units; some is even frozen to ensure a longer shelf life.

“If they are very rare, we will actually freeze the blood to increase the time we can store it for use from 42 days to up to 10 years,” Michele said.

Sometimes, members of the organization will even have to recruit rare donors on the registry to provide for a patient’s immediate need.

“There is a very satisfying feeling when you know you have found the unit of blood that is so valuable and vital to the health of another human being,” Michele said. “In my capacity, I will often take time to write a ‘Thank You’ note to those donors who have made an extraordinary effort to support a patient in need.”

To learn more about the American Rare Donor Program or to find a blood drive near you visit the American Red Cross Blood Services Website. Your blood could be a perfect match for a patient in need.

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