BLOOMINGTON — As the decades blend together, it's hard for Mike Matejtka to remember exactly when he started donating blood.
What's not hard for the historian, former Bloomington alderman and Great Plains Laborers District Council legislative affairs director to remember, however, is why he continues to donate — drive after drive, year after year.
"It's just helping people — knowing that one donation, an hour of your time, can make a significant difference in three or four people's lives," he said.
Matejka gave the comments while reclined in a blood donation chair at a blood drive at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center last week.
As pandemic-related restrictions continue to ease, blood donation centers hope to make up for a challenging year that saw fewer donations even as the need for blood remained the same.
Some schools and churches pivoted to remote-only gatherings, canceling the mobile blood drives they normally would host.
Some businesses transitioned to a skeleton crew staff, moving those who could work from home off-site, reducing the number of people available to donate blood and, consequently, canceling drives they might have held.
ImpactLife — the new, singularly named organization that used to be made up separately between Central Illinois Community Blood Center, Community Blood Services of Illinois, or Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center — which sells blood and other related products to OSF Healthcare, is currently estimated to be 35 to 40% below pre-pandemic blood donation levels.
"We have not yet fully recovered all the groups that we lost in the early stages of the pandemic," spokesperson Kirby Winn said. "Recovering those groups and events is taking some time. And that is compounded by this time of year because summer is always challenging."
Still, Winn said, the drives didn't stop entirely amid COVID-19.
"We've held mobile blood drives across our service region throughout the entire pandemic," Winn said. "Where we've had cancellations, that has been with education groups, businesses that couldn't have us on-site, many of the hospitals we serve. But we still haven't really stopped doing blood drives."
Having a mobile drive, however, doesn't mean people will come — and that's what organizers hope will change as the effects of the pandemic continue to lessen.
"We still collect about 2,800 to 3,000, sometimes 3,200 donations," Winn said of the center's weekly rate, adding that foot traffic at stationary donation centers has remained consistent. "I don't want you to get the idea that nobody is coming, but in order for us to have this system, the best way that we can, we need 3,500. And we're just under — week after week."
The American Red Cross, whose regional branch provides blood to Carle Health, said it's also in need of blood, but more specifically needs whole platelet blood, used often to help cancer patients and those who have undergone an organ transplant, among other surgical procedures.
"The Red Cross is seeing fewer blood and platelet donors give as the nation begins to climb out of this pandemic," Regional Communications Manager Drew Brown said. "This downturn comes at a time when the Red Cross continues to see strong demand for blood products, including platelets, by hospitals, causing concern for the sufficiency of the blood supply this month and throughout the summer."
Brown said the pandemic caused a number of cancer patients to delay treatments because they were more at risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications than some other groups. As patients return to continue their treatment, the demand for whole platelet blood outweighs the supply.
The Red Cross' national organization describes the situation as an "emergency need for eligible donors to make an appointment now to give platelets to ensure critical patient needs are met." Platelets, the clotting portion of blood primarily given to cancer patients during treatment, must be transfused within five days of donation and, therefore, are always in great demand.
“Many cancer patients, especially those going through chemotherapy, will have a need for blood products during treatment,” Dr. Baia Lasky, medical director for the Red Cross, said in a statement. “When someone donates blood or platelets, they may not only help prevent life-threatening bleeding that can cause stroke or relieve some symptoms, like shortness of breath and headaches, but also give patients and their families the time and hope they need to fight back.”
As OSF Healthcare Community Relations Coordinator Pam Meiner described it, the blood donation system "is a pipleline" — dependent on both donors and organizers to play their part.
"It's many systems coming together for this to work," she said.
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Phlebotomists Alyssa Freeman and Niko Ramirez draw blood from OSF St. Joseph Medical Center Clinical Laboratory Manager Jessica Williamson, left, and Mike Matejka, Normal, right, aboard the ImpactLife bloodmobile that was parked at the hospital, Thursday, May 27. The nonprofit agency collects blood from across the Midwest and provides hospitals with the life-giving substance.