Knoxville MEDIC's Thirst for Blood

Facing an economy driven downturn in donors, MEDIC returns to AdventureCon for a transfusion

It's tough all over, so they say, and the hard economic times are affecting non-profit as well as for-profit organizations. Even those which depend on donations of the non-monetary variety, such as MEDIC Regional Blood Center.

"Is it tougher for us? Absolutely," says Christi Fightmaster, MEDIC's director of public relations. "But we get hit in a different way, in ways people wouldn't think. Businesses close and have layoffs, and those are the places we go to do blood drives. So we're not collecting like we normally would, and that leaves us in a deficit."

Given the current deficit—collections are down about 1,800 units from this time last year—Fightmaster says MEDIC is looking anxiously toward this year's AdventureCon science fiction and comic book expo (June 12-14 at the Knoxville Convention Center). Initiated only two years ago, the AdventureCon partnership has turned into MEDIC's single biggest annual drive. This year, a MEDIC Mobile collection unit will be outside the convention center throughout the weekend.

"We have lots of Darth Vaders, stormtroopers, superheroes trekking out to donate blood," Fightmaster says, noting the expo netted 89 units in 2007 and 124 units in '08. "They've been very hospitable in allowing us to come out. It's a great bunch of people."

Most people are unaware of how laws of supply and demand operate in blood collection, Fightmaster says, and are thus unaware of why it's important for organizations like MEDIC to stay ahead of the curve.

Health industry trends and FDA regulations have evolved such that the entirety of the nation's transfusable blood supply is derived from donor services, rather than paid-for sources like plasma centers. Fightmaster says the collections at plasma centers are used for research, not for transfusion.

In some parts of the country, blood is provided through the Red Cross, she says. But in other areas, the transfusable blood supply derives entirely from regional non-profit organizations like MEDIC. MEDIC's coverage zone is a 21-county region in East Tennessee and Kentucky, and it is the sole provider of blood for hospitals in that area.

MEDIC's goal is to collect 350 pints of blood for every day of the work week. That provides just enough to cover the average weekly needs of hospitals in the coverage area.

But right now, MEDIC is averaging only about 250. "There were businesses where we used to average 50 or 60 pints, and now we might only get 15," says Fightmaster, again pointing to layoffs. "You name them, we did a blood drive with them. ImagePoint, Goody's, all of the boat companies like Sea Ray and Mastercraft, all them were kind enough to help us in the past. They were fantastic resources for us."

When MEDIC runs short, it must obtain additional units from blood clearinghouses, a process that is more difficult and costly. Fightmaster says MEDIC passes on the cost of collecting a unit of blood directly to hospitals, with no markup. Under ordinary circumstances, that cost is about $140 per unit. (MEDIC receives no government or other outside funding; its efforts are funded solely through processing fees charged to hospitals.)

And in addition to the hardships brought on by the economy, MEDIC must also contend with the reality that the need for blood increases, on average, between 6 and 7 percent every year, due to new treatment methods as well as population growth. The donor base, however, only increases 3 to 4 percent annually. "We need to figure out a way to close that gap," says Fightmaster.

Donors can give blood by visiting either of MEDIC's two Knoxville locations—in the main location at 1601 Ailor Avenue, which operates 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. every weekday with a part-time schedule on weekends, and in Farragut at 11000 Kingston Pike, which is open Wednesday and Friday 7 a.m.-5 p.m., and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. on other weekdays.

The process itself takes about 45 minutes, and includes a brief physical, "to make sure that you can safely spare a pint of blood; it's absolutely safety first," Fightmaster says. With more advanced collection methods, donor organizations like MEDIC can now take donations of plasma only, or of platelets only. (Platelets affect blood clotting, and are often transfused in cancer patients.) Whole blood donations require the most recovery time, with 56 days required between donations.

In addition to its permanent locations, MEDIC also runs six mobile units for a total of seven drives per day. These include open public collections—in grocery store parking lots, for instance—as well as drives at private businesses. But Fightmaster says those drives generally aren't as successful, since the business drives offer employees the added incentive of a break from the daily grind.

To compensate, Fightmaster says MEDIC is "sweetening the pot" this summer by offering every donor a coupon for a free Chik-fil-A sandwich. Donors' names also go into a pot, making them eligible for weekly contest drawings—winners receiving either a $100 Pilot gas card or free Tennessee Smokies baseball tickets—and monthly drawings for a Home Depot gas grill.

But Fightmaster believes MEDIC's best incentive is the one it has always offered: For a single donation of blood, the donor and his/her IRS dependents are entitled to "free blood" that year in the event of transfusion. "We have so few people actually donate, we can afford to offer that as a thank you," Fightmaster says.

"That can save a lot of money, because rarely do you use only one pint of blood. In a major car accident, you're probably looking at 20 to 30 pints needed. It's like a mini insurance policy. We think it's hands down the best thing we offer."

Fightmaster adds that statistics show that one in five will need transfused blood at some point in a lifetime. "When you add it up, it's a whole lot to gain, and only a pint of blood to use," she says.