The American Red Cross says Atlanta donors don’t provide enough blood to meet the area’s needs, so it must be imported from other regions across the country.

Blood donations are a break-even business model where the supply struggles to keep up with demand, particularly in the summer months and around the Christmas holidays.

For hospitals in the Reporter Newspapers readership area, that means looking for ways to keep the blood flowing to patients who need transfusions. Officials with the Southern Blood Services Region of the American Red Cross say they are constantly working to broaden the base of potential donors, increasingly turning to younger candidates.

The Red Cross reports that 38 percent of the population is eligible to give blood and, of that, 8 percent donate. When people take vacations, it creates two problems. Donations decrease and vacationers sometimes visit countries with diseases like malaria that can delay their ability to donate for a year or more.

Blood also has a limited shelf life, meaning surges in blood donations after disasters like the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, won’t help in the long term. Platelets keep five days, red cells keep 42 days and plasma can be frozen up to a year.

When the blood runs dry, hospitals turn to their suppliers and if they can’t get enough, they have to make other choices.

Emad Balkash, blood bank supervisor at Piedmont Hospital, said elective surgeries are cancelled to give priority to emergency surgeries.

“We also communicate with hospitals,” he said. “ … Maybe a hospital has blood they can lend to us. These are the kinds of situations that can alleviate some of the burden.”

Meredith Forrester, a Buckhead resident and chairwoman of the blood services board for the Southern region of the American Red Cross, said Atlanta’s donors don’t provide enough blood to serve the metro area’s needs. The Midwest provides a large amount of the imported blood, Forrester said.

“The Southern Region is a net importer, which means we don’t collect the blood we need to support our region,” Forrester said. “We have to import from regions that have a surplus.”

The Southern Region Board of Directors Blood Drive is July 18 at the Atlanta History Center from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Participants and their guests will receive free entry and donors will be entered into drawings for prizes. Appointments can be made at redcrossblood.org with sponsor code arcboard or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS.

Forrester knows about the need for blood transfusions better than most. In July 1999, she was working at her first job after graduating from the University of Georgia when a man named Mark Barton walked in to her Buckhead office and shot her in the back with a hollow-point bullet.

Forrester survived what became known as the Atlanta Day Trading shootings. She soon became aware that blood shortages at the time nearly cost her her life.

“I needed a significant amount of blood,” she said. “My family was told my chance of survival was one in 1,000 and a day before, there wasn’t enough blood on hand.”

In 2010, she said, she donated blood again for the first time after the shooting. Blood transfusions require at least a one-year deferral for potential donors.

Blood drives in high schools are common. So are prizes and freebies to potential donors. A July 18 blood drive at the Atlanta History Center will offer a chance to win an iPad, for example.

“The Red Cross tries to provide incentives whenever possible,” Forrester said. “They’re changing the way they reach out to people.”

Red Cross spokeswoman Kristen Stancil said 22 percent of blood collected in the Southeast comes from high school and college students.

The minimum age to donate is 17, but people as young as 16 can donate with parental consent. There’s no upper age limit, provided donors are healthy, the Red Cross says. The hope is they’ll continue donating for life, Forrester said.

“If you live to be about 70 years old, there’s a 95 percent chance you’re going to need blood at some point in your lifetime,” Forrester said.

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com