We Can Be Heroes: The Summer Blood Shortage and Why It’s Vital for BIPOC to Donate

by Mark Van Streefkerk

It’s easy to feel helpless or overwhelmed in the face of looming and large-scale crises — like a pandemic, climate change, and systemic inequities, for starters — but there’s one thing you can do that’s free, relatively quick and easy, always in demand, and directly saves lives: donating blood. 

Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion, which can be essential for cancer patients, trauma victims, premature babies, very ill COVID-19 patients, and more. One pint of donated blood can be used for live-saving treatment for three people. 

Bloodworks Northwest is a nonprofit organization that helps supply lifesaving blood to 95% of hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, and right now they’re “experiencing a severe summer blood shortage,” explained Karen Kirby, communications director for Bloodworks Northwest. 

“In pre-COVID times, our blood supply would be able to recover from a crisis within a week from a strong response from the community, but with reduced capacity due to social distancing, it takes weeks for our supply to recover,” said Kirby, “which is why we need people to be donating on a consistent basis in the community.” 

You can donate blood through a series of upcoming blood drives hosted by the Seattle Opera with Bloodworks Northwest. Those who donate will be entered to win a foldable Oru Kayak, Wonitago Kayak Paddles, and an Onyx Universal Paddle Vest. Through the “Save More Lives. Give Blood.” campaign, donors can win tickets to sporting events, signed memorabilia, and more. 

The blood drive takes place at the Opera Center’s Tagney Jones Hall at 363 Mercer Street. Scheduling an appointment ahead of time is mandatory, masks are required, and no guests or people under 16 are permitted onsite. 

You can sign up for an appointment via their donor portal

Upcoming blood drive dates: 

August 24, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

August 25, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Seattle Opera has partnered with Bloodworks Northwest for three other pop-up blood drives. So far, 624 people have donated blood, helping up to 1,671 patients in the greater Seattle area. 

Jane Repensek, chief operating officer/chief financial officer for the Seattle Opera, at a different Blood Drive with Bloodworks Northwest. (Photo: Bloodworks Northwest)

Why We Need a Diverse Blood Supply

The need for blood from BIPOC communities — and Black donors especially — is vital. The overwhelming majority of blood donors are white. People with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder mostly found in people of African descent, can require blood transfusions — some people require multiple transfusions — and often only African American blood will be a suitable match.

The Bloodworks Project is a local, youth-led organization helping to raise awareness for the need for blood donors, especially among Asian American, Black, and People of Color communities. The Pathway Foundation, an internship dedicated to promoting civic engagement among high school students, founded the Bloodworks Project in 2019. Partnered with Bloodworks Northwest, the Bloodworks Project has hosted blood drives, held public webinars, created infographics, and given presentations to school clubs and local organizations. They are also collaborating with Lives for Literacy, a grassroots movement aimed at eradicating illiteracy, to develop a global advocacy toolkit for blood donation. 

While blood can be transfused across genetic and ethnic lines, it is almost always safer to find a closer ethnic match, as the patient’s body is less likely to reject the blood. The Bloodworks Project website shares the story of Kirby Wong who died from complications following heart surgery. Wong went through 544 units of blood while on life support for two and a half weeks because his body rejected every transfusion of mostly non-Asian blood. His tragic death was a call for more donors from the Asian American community. Kirby’s father Ed Wong has since been an outspoken advocate of donating blood within Asian American communities. 

Lillian Huang, project leader of the Bloodworks Project, recognizes that for being the most diverse area in Seattle, the South End does not have a single blood bank or donor center. “Other regions such as Central Seattle and North Seattle have Bloodworks Northwest donor centers readily accessible. Having local blood centers makes it convenient for residents to donate,” she said. “Without a blood center near South Seattle, [it] remains an unexplored hub of blood donors.” 

The closest blood donation centers to the South End are in First Hill, Tukwila, and Federal Way.

Tips for Your First Time

A little anxious about donating blood for the first time? That’s normal! Jane Repensek, chief operating officer/chief financial officer for the Seattle Opera, has been a regular donor since she turned 18. Repensek has signed up for the upcoming blood drive and offers some words of advice.

“If you’re anxious, talk to the folks [there] because they deal with everyone from the first timer to the very experienced donor. The staff is incredible,” she said. “If you’re nervous, they spend as much time with you as you need — even aftercare by making sure you’re on your feet and you’re stable.” 

Additional tips for first-time blood donors:

  • Bring your ID and a list of medications you’re taking.
  • Get a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty (preferably iron-rich) meal before you go.
  • Hydrate! Make sure you’ve drunk plenty of fluids, and drink 16 oz. of water before your donation time. 
  • Wear loose clothing/make sure you can roll up your sleeves.
  • If you can, get your blood drawn from your non-dominant, or non-writing, arm.
  • Bring your headphones so you can watch a video or listen to music on your phone during the donation process. (The donation process itself takes about 10 minutes.)
  • After the donation, chill out in the refreshment and recovery area, and enjoy the free cookies! 
  • Keep drinking plenty of water throughout the next 24 hours, eat iron-rich foods, and avoid alcohol. 

For more tips, check out this list on the Red Cross website.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter

📸 Featured Image: The Bloodworks Project is a youth-led organization helping to raise awareness for blood donors in BIPOC communities. (Photo courtesy of the Bloodworks Project.)

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