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The best things in life are red: Black History Museum, Red Cross are rolling up some more sleeves.

A photo collage showing a white circle with a red cross in it, two hands forming a heart and a person's hand squeezing a red ball.
American Red Cross, Idaho Black History Museum

It really hasn’t been too long since Idaho came out from under Crisis Standards of Care.

During those critical weeks, Idaho caregivers were faced with surging infections and hospitalizations, while the state’s blood supply was dangerously low. And while hospitals have resumed non-critical procedures, that blood supply still needs a significant boost.

That’s one of the reasons why the Idaho Black History Museum and the American Red Cross partnered to shore up that supply, for all ethnic groups.

Research confirms that a patient’s best blood match often comes from donors of similar ethnicity.

“Since we are aware that you do need blood of varying ethnic backgrounds to serve those same communities, we really try to make it a point to let people know that, hey, all blood is necessary, but all blood is not the same,” said Phillip Thompson the museum outreach coordinator.

Thompson joined Nicole Sirak Irwin, regional CEO of the Red Cross of Idaho, Montana and eastern Oregon to talk about the unique blood drive, and some amazing new technology that tracks your donation.

“It's been outstanding. I think it's led to some other partnerships as well.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I’m George Prentice. On the ever-growing list of things that we have learned, learned or confirmed during the pandemic is that while we depend so very much on our systems of care, those same systems ask for our respect and our commitment to do the right thing. And in all of that, we have also learned how delicate those systems can be. In particular this morning, we're going to talk a bit about blood. And the American Red Cross has well recently faced one of the worst blood shortages that we've seen in recent memory. Let's say good morning to Nichole Sirak Irwin. She's the regional CEO of the Red Cross of Idaho, Montana, and eastern Oregon. Nicole, good morning.

NICOLE SIRAK IRWIN: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: And also joining us this morning, Philip Thompson, a familiar voice to this program and director of outreach and outgoing board chair and president at the Idaho Black History Museum. Philip, good morning.

PHILLIP THOMPSON: Good morning, sir.

PRENTICE: Nicole, let's start at a high level here. Talk to me about what a single donation of blood can accomplish.

IRWIN: Sure. A single donation can save up to three lives. So there are different blood and blood products. Also, people who are experiencing cancer can benefit from blood products, as well as car accident victims and premature babies. So it's the only thing that can save lives for many people. And it has a lot of uses.

PRENTICE: Interesting point. For first-timers, I guess it's a real eye-opener. Number one, how simple it is. And then … well … it just kind of opens the door. It becomes something that can be a part of your life.

IRWIN: For many people this is kind of the way they give back to the community is through lifelong blood donations.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that when Idaho was under the cloud of Crisis Standards of Care, those were, pretty difficult weeks and days and hours for you and your colleagues?

IRWIN: Well, we were certainly needing to be very agile, as were all of our health care partners. What we did discover early in the pandemic is people stepped up and gave. We were having to find new places to hold donations since many of the churches and schools that typically donate were closed. So businesses offered places and many people through the pandemic saw it as I'm not going to go out, I'm not going to do much, but I can go out and give blood. So we were wonderfully surprised by the outpouring of support.

PRENTICE: Philip Thompson I recall there was a time some time ago when we heard that we shouldn't categorize blood types based on ethnicity, when in fact I guess what we've learned is it's a good thing that we can categorize them.

THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. I think that was more an indication of trying to right the wrongs that were done out of ignorance…, like formerly segregated blood, based on “ hatred of the other. And then later it became, Hey, we've got to make amends for our missteps”. But then once it became medically and scientifically aware and people were able to do the research to see really how our bodies react, we saw that there are actual benefits to that original ignorance. Even though it was done in error, it was actually for the greater good by doing so.

PRENTICE: And Phillip, now looking through the lens of the Black History Museum… talk to me about your callout. You had a very particular challenge.

THOMPSON: So in part with the notion of that, we were in a pandemic for the first time in 100 years. And what the Red Cross is dealing with, we did a blood drive previously, really trying to solicit just blood in general. But since we are aware that you do need blood of varying ethnic backgrounds to serve those same communities, we really try to make it a point to let people know that, hey, all blood is necessary, but all blood is not the same. Whether it come down to like genetic differences or like in the black community are resistance to malaria. But at the same time, our predisposition for sickle cell anemia that the recipient is best served when the donor is of the most similar ethnic background. So in a city like Boise, when you don't have as much variety, but you do have large percentages of people of differing backgrounds, it's a call that we all must answer in order to serve the greater community. It's not an issue of, Oh, we don't want yours, or yours is not as good, but we can serve one and serve all if we all get actively engaged.

PRENTICE: So, Nicole, how has the response been to that call up?

IRWIN: It's been outstanding. I think it's led to some other partnerships as well. The Idaho African Alliance out in eastern Idaho has been a long-term partner, but they've also kind of signed on to this. Some of the universities, student athlete programs have asked to be a part of this. So it's had an enormous impact.

PRENTICE: Nicole, what can you tell a layperson about the screening process when we walk in the door to make a donation? There has to be some kind of fringe benefit there of learning a little bit more about our own health.

IRWIN: You do. You get your blood pressure reading, a hemoglobin, reading your pulse will be checked. Just general wellness types of things will be a part of your blood donation.

PRENTICE: Philip, I want to circle back to something that you brought up, and that is that here in the Treasure Valley, the City of Boise in particular, we are becoming more diverse. Well, it sounds as if the response is pretty good so far for this. Callout for blood has taken on a particular urgency.

THOMPSON: Well, absolutely. And especially like just the gross numbers that Boise is gaining, a city of 200,000 people is much different than the city at 300,000 people. So when that happens, you're going to have medical needs, you're going to have additional traffic… and traffic precipitates auto wrecks. Wrecks often need blood transfusion. So just from any way you look at it, there is a need. Just the fact that we'll have more people, that means you're going to have more surgeries. That means you're going to have more possibility of needing blood during that surgery. So we've got to really get ahead of the need and especially in the middle of a pandemic where we're already kind of behind the eight ball. We've got to do all we can to try to get ahead of this to keep Boise as pleasant as it has been.

PRENTICE: Nicole, to Phillip's point, I remember a conversation I had with an ER doc up in McCall at the height of the crisis standards of care, and he was saying they had every finger and toe crossed hoping there would not be a car accident. Yeah. And necessary transfusion because there was such a limit to the supply.

IRWIN: Yeah. Particularly in January of this year, that's when we really saw the critical shortage, a number of things, including vaccine mandates and, you know, just kind of perfect storm. So, yeah, we were all in that same boat and just hoping that a large transfusion wouldn't be needed. The hospitals needed to change some of their protocols. On that fateful we're coming out of it, but it's definitely been a scary time.

PRENTICE: Philip, I don't know about you, but goodness knows, I have needed blood more than a few times. But I began giving blood kind of late in life. How about you?

THOMPSON: Well, I'll be the first to admit that the first time I donated was the first drive we did a moment ago. Not this last one, but the one like a year or so ago. And it wasn't out of like, oh, I'm morally opposed to doing so. It was at a sheer ignorance or apathy or maybe a combination of both that I had not done so. But it just wasn't something that even occurred to me. And for the first drive we had, I believe like 30 of the people were new donors. And so I hope it sparked that needing them too. So that's kind of the whole purpose of this. It gets that community notion of let's all get actively involved in the solution.

IRWIN: I'm so glad to hear that there's no substitute for human blood. So, you know, we need these donations. We need them throughout the year. Sometimes people come out in an outpouring like now it can take almost two weeks to get an appointment here in Boise. So keep trying. It means that people are responding. But, you know, two weeks from now, there could be plenty of appointments available.

PRENTICE: And you've got a pretty user friendly website, right, to make appointments to find locations for special blood drives or just regular donation sites?

IRWIN: We do. And if you use our blood app, it will show you where your donation went so you can track it.

PRENTICE: Really. So give me an example of that. In other words, it went to a particular region or a particular city? What will it show me?

RWIN: Yeah. My last donation was used at St Luke's in Boise. The one before that was used in Nevada.

PRENTICE: Wow. I've got to download that app. Nicole, thank you so very much. Phillip Thank you so very much. And congratulations so far on this effort. And it sounds as if we can do a little better too, right now.

IRWIN: Thanks for raising awareness on this important issue.

THOMPSON: Thank you, sir. Good to talk to you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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