BLUFFDALE — Utah, and the nation, is facing a critical blood shortage this summer. Health care professionals are urging Utahns to donate to help those who rely on regular blood transfusions just to survive.
Over the last three months, the American Red Cross has distributed about 75,000 blood products more than anticipated to meet increasing demands, depleting the national blood supply.
While blood donations often help people in crisis after an injury or during a life-threatening surgery, some people, like 12-year-old Garrett Thorell, rely on regular transfusions to enjoy a normal, active lifestyle.
Like other kids his age, Garrett loves to play sports and hang out with his friends. He is also a pro on his scooter. "I can pull off a tail whip!" he described.
"Garrett is larger than life. Everywhere he goes, he definitely is the life of the party," said his mom, Rachel Thorell.
With that kind of energy, one would never guess he often doesn't feel well by the end of the month. "I'm usually really tired. I have back pain and my eyes get white," Garrett said.
"He feels it. He can get back pain in his bones, usually in his hip bones, his spine," his mom added.
Garrett has a blood disorder called beta thalassemia major which impacts the way his body makes hemoglobin. "It's not very common here in the U.S.; he's actually from China," Rachel said. She and her husband adopted Garrett when he was only 18 months old.
The disease affects Garrett's body's basic functions. "His blood cells don't work properly. They don't carry oxygen, his red blood cells," Rachel explained. "He requires blood transfusions every three to four weeks to be able to stay alive. This is something that will manage through his whole life."
Lauren Fredrickson, a medical laboratory scientist who oversees transfusion services at Intermountain Primary Children's Hospital, says Utah is facing an unprecedented blood shortage. "A few factors have really made this summer worse than we'd normally see and that's really concerning," she said. "It leaves us with this razor-thin margin of being able to have enough blood products on the shelf in order to meet our patients' needs."
She attributes the shortage to an increase in trauma-related accidents during the summer with people participating in more risky activities, and an uptick in resuming surgeries post-pandemic. "Because of COVID, especially in our adult population, we saw that elective surgeries were delayed," she explained.
But people like Garrett need regular transfusions year-round. "A lot of the kids here that we see can't wait for treatment and that's why we need blood now," Fredrickson said. "We want to have the resources to be able to give them the best treatment immediately."
She says they especially need Type O-negative and Type O-positive blood. "But we do need blood products of all types. We need platelets, we need red blood cells, we need plasma products," she described.
Garrett receives treatment in the pediatric oncology unit. "Unlike a lot of kids, when he comes home from his treatment, he's full of energy," Rachel said. Garrett said he is ready to hang out with his friends and scooter when he gets home from his transfusion.
Even though this will be a lifelong treatment for Garrett, the nurses at Primary Children's Hospital wanted to find a way for him to celebrate his progress. A couple of years ago, he got to ring a bell to celebrate his 100th transfusion. "We estimate his junior year of high school, he'll get to ring it a second time," Rachel said.
The Thorells are so grateful for generous donors. "That is why I get to watch him play soccer and play with his friends and be a normal boy because of donors," she said. "You truly give life."
"Well, keeps me alive, so I'm really grateful for that," Garrett added.
He invites Utahns to give blood. "Well, they should because not just me — millions of people, I think, across the globe need blood to survive," Garrett said.
He tells other kids in his shoes to have courage and strength. "And happiness, always happiness," he said.
Fredrickson said blood only has a shelf life of 42 days and must be constantly replenished by generous donors. Those interested in donating blood can sign up through the American Red Cross or call 801-892-4000.
Fredrickson reassures families of patients who rely on regular transfusion that their needs will be met. "We have enough to treat the children for now. We're seeing increased usage and so we want to make sure that we will always have enough," she explained. She said Intermountain partners with other local hospitals to share blood when they need it.