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Red Cross hopes to expand donor pool

Phlebotomist Stacie Morello of the Red Cross talks with blood donor Barron Buckley at the Northeast Sports & Fitness Center in Mountain Top.

Don Carey/the times leader

ASHLEY — Every day the American Red Cross Blood Services Office in Ashley strives to collect 400 units of blood to supply 30 hospitals — serving nearly 4 million people in its 27-county coverage area that extends into New York.

It’s a tall task, given that fewer than 5 percent of all eligible donors are willing to donate blood, says John Castagna, communications manager at the American Red Cross.

In an effort to expand its donor pool, the Red Cross is reaching out to the growing local Hispanic community. This demographic has increased in Luzerne County from 3,713 to 11,971 from 2000 to 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Its growing population is only one of the reasons the Red Cross is targeting donations among this group. The other reason making these donations significant is that 57 percent of people of Hispanic descent are Type O (compared to 45 percent of Caucasians), according to the Office of Minority Health Resource Center.

The need for Type O blood is critical, says Kathy Hosey, blood bank supervisor at Pennant Laboratory, a service of Wyoming Valley Health Care System. Donors with Type A or Type B blood have antigens on their red cells, and Type O donors do not. Any patient can receive Type O blood, making it the universal blood type.

It is also the blood type used in emergencies. Type O negative blood is transfused in traumas such as gunshot wounds or given to newborn babies before their type can be determined, according to Hosey. She also points out that since many Hispanic patients are Type O, the need for that type blood is also increasing as the Hispanic population increases.

“We have a greater need than our supply and that will only increase in the future,” says Hosey. “We transfuse 1,000 or more units of blood a month; a lot of people do not understand the need for donors.”

Reaching out

The Regional Board of the NEPA American Red Cross Blood Service has created a Diversity Committee to aid in achieving this goal. According to Mike Sanfilippo, divisional marketing manager of the American Red Cross and Diversity Committee member, the committee reaches out to local Hispanic leaders to build relationships and develop a sense of trust in the Hispanic community.

“The American Red Cross has had some success having blood drives in places that employ large numbers of Hispanics,” says Barbara Sandt R.N., collections director at the American Red Cross, “but culturally it is not something they do.”

Silvana Hogben, a member of the Diversity Committee, immigrated to the United States 20 years ago from Columbia. Potential Hispanic donors are often recent immigrants and are not familiar with the collection system in this country. In many Latin American countries, people donate for friends and relatives when they are in need or when there is a natural disaster, says Hogben, which is different from the collection system used in this country. Educating them to our system is very important.

Many donors are also hesitant, due to the number of personal questions that are asked during the donation process, she added.

Although trust and cultural issues are significant obstacles facing the Red Cross and their goal of increasing the number of Hispanic blood donations, no obstacle is larger than the language barrier.

“Bottom line, there is a growing Hispanic population; we have a way to help them be part of the community, that benefits the community, but we have to be able to talk to them,” adds Castagna. He says that Red Cross Blood Services is continually attempting to recruit bilingual staff and volunteers.

Lori Fehlinger, a senior account manager with the American Red Cross; Alejandra Marroquin, the Latino Ministry Coordinator at Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Scranton; and members of the Diversity Committee coordinated a successful Hispanic blood drive this year. Fehlinger recruited donors using Spanish-language educational materials distributed through church publications and by having bilingual staff available during the drive.

“Education is key, most people don’t donate because they have not been asked; it is much harder to ask when you can’t communicate,” says Fehlinger.

Hoping to build on the success of this drive, another one is slated for next year.

Hurdles for donors

The language barrier is also an obstacle in obtaining an accurate donor health history. The Red Cross has a strict policy in place that interpreters cannot be friends or family of the donor, to insure confidentiality. This policy makes it important to have bilingual staff available during donation drives, says Fehlinger.

Barbara Sandt notes malaria is endemic to many Latin American countries, so it is very important to determine that the donors have not lived in or visited these countries in the previous three years, otherwise they potentially could be a malaria carrier. This underscores the importance of an interpreter, since malaria can be passed in a blood transfusion.

The local Red Cross Blood Services reports that less than one percent of its collections last year was from Hispanic donors. The Red Cross staff hopes to improve on this statistic through education and relationship building.

Sanfilippo says the Diversity Committee will continue to develop relationships within the Hispanic community, by having a presence at Hispanic community events and distributing educational materials.

“The American Red Cross does have Spanish literature, but what we need is to recruit bilingual people, it’s a serious need,” concludes Castagna.

Giving Blood

To donate blood, call 1-800-GIVELIFE

To volunteer, call 570-823-7164. Bilingual volunteers are sorely needed.

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