By Gordon Williams
Keith Freier’s journey toward becoming a champion of Red Cross blood drives began one day a few years ago when he found himself sprawled on the floor, unable to move. He had experienced back pain before, but this was something new. Diagnosis showed he had bone marrow cancer which had made his bones brittle and damaged his spinal column.
That led to 10 hours of surgery which consumed seven units of donated blood. “There was a lot of bleeding that day and that blood saved my life,” says the 56-year-old Freier, of Kennewick WA. Subsequent treatment, including a stem cell transplant, required still more blood. In all, Freier received more than a dozen units of blood and blood products during his treatment — each unit being around a pint of blood.
Freier is understandably grateful to the donors whose blood kept him alive. “I wish I could go out and thank all the donors whose blood saved my life,” he says. “They gave their blood to help someone they didn’t know and will never know.”
He had hoped to show his gratitude by donating his blood to the Red Cross — which normally would not be a problem. Anyone 17 or older and in generally good health can donate blood. More than 2 ½ million Americans do donate 6 ½ million units of their blood each year. Freier, himself, was an active blood donor before the cancer struck.
Yet when he tried to give blood, he was turned down — for two reasons. While he has been free of cancer for five years, having had blood cancer keeps him from being a donor now. Also, Freier must take blood thinners on a regular basis. Those thinners combat the risk of stroke by keeping his blood from clotting. But starting a flow of blood that can’t clot could trigger a medical catastrophe.
Since he can’t add his blood to the Red Cross blood supply, Freier does what he can to persuade those who can donate to do so. He says wife Annette “Is very faithful about donating blood on a regular basis.” He urges other potential donors to do the same.
His effort to recruit donors brings praise from Michele Roth, executive director of the Red Cross Central and Southeastern Washington chapter, headquartered in Kennewick. Roth says she has known Keith and his family for years. “I told him that sharing his story would be a good way to inspire others to donate,” she says.
So why is Freier’s story being told now in this regional blog? March is American Red Cross month — first designated as such by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943. Right now the nation faces what the Red Cross calls “a blood crisis.” The need for donated blood is relentless, with someone in a hospital somewhere in the United States needing a blood transfusion every two seconds. But the many challenges created by a global pandemic have understandably slashed into blood donations.
The Red Cross kicks off this special month by warning of the “most severe shortage of blood in over a decade.” It urges all eligible donors “to make an appointment to give now.”
If you want to know how your donated blood will be put to use, look no further than Keith Freier’s story. Anemia is a frequent side effect of cancer. To offset the anemia, cancer patients require huge quantities of transfused blood during their treatment. The victim of a serious automobile accident may consume as many as 100 units of blood. A patient with sickle cell disease — most common among African-Americans — may need as many as 100 blood transfusions a year.
To join the ranks of Red Cross blood donors, go to the website at redcrossblood.org. The site will help you find — and sign up for — a blood drive near you. If, like Freier, you cannot donate yourself, you can help out in other ways. The actual drawing of blood is done by trained Red Cross phlebotomists, but every Red Cross blood drive uses blood “ambassadors” to sign in donors and help them through the donation process. Drivers are needed to transport blood to the hospitals that will use it.
You can donate whole blood every 57 days. Platelets (colorless cells in the blood that promote clotting) can be harvested every seven days. While there is that minimum age for donating blood (17, but 16 with parental approval) there is no maximum age. As long as your medical condition permits it, you are never too old to donate blood. If you aren’t sure whether your medical condition makes you eligible to donate, let a Red Cross technician make the call. Your health will be checked out before a drop of blood is collected.
Freier likes to thank blood donors when he meets one. “We don’t do enough to acknowledge and thank those who are able to donate,” he says. What does he tell potential blood donors to motivate them to give? “I tell them to do it because it can save a life,” he says. “I tell them they never know if someday they will need blood themselves, so the life they save by donating blood could be their own.”