Every year, almost 5 million Americans need a blood transfusion, says the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. People need blood transfusions for many different reasons, but many of them need one because of blood loss during surgery. In fact, about one-third of all heart surgery patients need a blood transfusion. Other reasons patients need additional blood include serious injuries from car wrecks, war or natural disasters. Still others require blood transfusions because of illnesses that deplete the body's blood supply. Severe infections, liver disease, kidney disease, anemia, cancer and bleeding disorders are some of those illnesses. During a transfusion, a small IV line delivers healthy, donated blood into the patient's blood vessels. The blood is transfused either as whole blood or in parts. Those individual parts are be red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Because blood transfusions are so common, they are deemed a safe procedure. However, a recent study found the blood stored in donor banks may not be as safe as once thought. Researchers found patients who received transfusions with blood that had been stored for 29 days or more were twice as likely to suffer hospital-acquired infections like pneumonia, upper respiratory infections and sepsis. Current federal regulations in the United States allow red blood cells to be stored for up to 42 days.
While some may refuse blood transfusions for safety reasons, others refuse them for religious reasons. Those who belong to a religion called Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to accept blood in any form, including through blood transfusions. They will not accept donated blood even in emergency situations. The official Web site of Jehovah's Witnesses states, "Those who respect life as a gift from the Creator do not try to sustain life by taking in blood." Jehovah's Witnesses believe blood is more than a biological fluid and turn to Bible passages that ban the consumption of blood to defend their belief.
When a patient needs a blood transfusion but refuses because of religious beliefs, doctors have few options. Michael Lill, M.D., director of the blood and marrow transplant program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif., offers a new solution to the dilemma. He transplants stem cells so patients like Jehovah's Witnesses can recover blood counts without transfusions. He also administers hormones that stimulate the growth of red blood cells so patients start off with a high hemoglobin level before a transplant. "During the transplant period, they drop their red cell count a reasonable amount, but because they start off fairly high, it never gets down to a dangerous level," Dr. Lill told Ivanhoe. Patricia Ford, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist at Pennsylvania Hospital, also performs bloodless transplants. She is one of the pioneers of the procedure and has taught it to doctors around the world.
Another alternative to blood transfusions is a man-made alternative to human blood. Unfortunately, researchers are still working on developing the substance. What researchers have developed are medicines that help the body make blood cells to reduce the need for blood transfusions. Some doctors even collect and reuse blood for a patient.