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We’ve all heard the pleas from local blood banks asking volunteers to donate blood after a horrific fire or the Boston Marathon bombing resulting in numerous injuries. But, the truth is blood donations are necessary every day of the year.

For the past 40 years, January has been designated as National Blood Donor Month. Not because we want to prepare for a national disaster, but because every two seconds someone requires life-saving whole blood or one of its components, many because they have a life-threatening illness or congenital condition. Raising awareness is the only way to keep the supply fresh and available.

Consider these startling statistics from The American Red Cross. Ten percent of the people who go into the hospital require at least one pint of blood. Each year, transfusions allow roughly 4.5 million Americans who would die without the life saving blood to live. One hour of your time, or less, and one pint of blood, could mean the difference between life and death for three people.

For many people, donating blood is a mysterious and sometimes frightening proposition. The process is really quite easy, and painless.

It is much like getting an IV, but in reverse. A Phlebotomist, that is the person who does the needle stick, will clean your arm with a sterile solution and then set a line to withdraw blood. You relax, normally reclining in a comfortable chair, as your blood is drawn. Then, after the draw they give you a snack – usually a couple of cookies, a piece of fruit or some juice. You may be asked to rest for 20 to 30 minutes, especially it’s the first time you have donated blood.

In most states the minimum age to donate is 17, but some states lower the age to 16 with parental consent. Prospective donors must weigh at least 110 pounds. Research shows that being too thin may mean your body doesn’t tolerate donating blood as well as your slightly overweight friends and family. Before blood is drawn, a screening nurse or volunteers will ask some general health questions to make sure the donor won’t compromise his own health, or the health of the public by contributing to the local blood bank inventory. Surprisingly, allow most healthy adults are eligible to donate, only one in ten will choose to do so.

As far as eligibility goes, each local blood bank or chapter of a national organization may establish their own standards, however all are based on FDA criteria. AABB, an organization that strives to improve standards and maintain quality of care in transfusing medicine, develops rigorous guidelines for blood collection. The organization recommends donor deferral (which means a donor isn’t eligible at a another time, but could donate later) if the prospect has taken Tegison, a medication for people who suffer from psoriasis. They also provide guidelines for evaluating sexual activity, risks associated with active infections and prior blood transfusion recipients.

So what if a person truly wants to help, but doesn’t meet eligibility requirements. National Blood Donor Month volunteers serve many roles in the national blood collection and supply delivery system. Non-paid workers often complete the preliminary screening, hand out flyers about upcoming fundraising activities and collection events, maintain records, make appointment reminder phone calls and do many other vital tasks necessary to keeping local and national blood banks supplied with fresh, healthy blood products.

While it is true that not everyone can donate whole blood, platelets or plasma, any individual with a passion for helping others, strong organizational skills, a willingness to spread the word and a few hours to spare can organize a community blood drive. The National Bone Marrow Registry offers free support with fliers, posters, helpful tips for getting free advertising the event and other resources for first-time and repeat volunteers.

Participating in National Blood Donor Month events is a way to give the gift of life. There are myriad ways to get involved. The biggest challenge may be deciding which volunteer opportunity to explore first.

A Women donating blood