Dr. Courtney Hopkins, Senior Chief Medical Officer of Vitalant Blood Services, on How to Prepare to Give Much Needed Blood Donations

Dr. Courtney Hopkins, Senior Chief Medical Officer of Vitalant Blood Services, joined Discover Lafayette to discuss how to adequately prepare to donate blood, a resource much needed to keep our community safe and healthy, and one that is always in short supply.

Most of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, but only about 3% actually donate.

Board Certified in Clinical Pathology and in Transfusion Medicine/Blood Banking by the American Board of Pathology, Dr. Hopkins previously spent seven years with the American Red Cross.

She graduated with a BA in Biology from Arcadia University and earned her medical degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Dr. Hopkins completed her transfusion medicine fellowship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the David School of Medicine at UCLA.

We asked Dr. Hopkins to join us as a follow up to our interview with Amanda Landers, Regional Director of Vitalant Blood Services, which was produced in November 2020. Our discussion was centered around the fact that our region has been experiencing a critical shortage of blood donations, amplified by the COVID shutdown which has negatively impacted blood drives at schools and businesses. The shelf life of blood is short, and we must ensure an adequate supply to help patients in need. Red Cell units last from 21 to 42 days; platelets last 5 days; and plasma can be stored up to one year if frozen properly.

After that initial interview with Amanda Landers, Jan Swift was motivated to contribute to the blood supply and attempted to give blood twice, but was not qualified due to a low hemoglobin count. 

While Swift’s doctor said she had healthy iron levels, the criteria for someone to qualify for a blood donation is a bit more complicated. We wanted to get to the bottom of this and asked Dr. Hopkins to explain how the blood donation process works and why Vitalant wants to ensure that blood donors remain healthy as they contribute to our community.

Low hemoglobin is a common reason people are turned away from donating blood. When you sign up to donate blood at Vitalant, technicians prick your finger to screen your hemoglobin level.

About 70 percent of your body’s iron is found in the red blood cells of your blood called hemoglobin and in muscle cells called myoglobin. Hemoglobin is essential for transferring oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues.

Your blood is not actually tested for “iron,” but for the hemoglobin which contains the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. When you donate a whole unit of blood, your body loses about 250 mg. of iron in that one unit donation. Vitalant wants to ensure that you leave their facility healthy and whole.

Iron deficiency is a common reason someone would have a low hemoglobin count, but not the only reason. You can increase your hemoglobin levels by eating a healthy, low-fat meal prior to your blood donation, in addition to ingesting a salty snack immediately prior to showing up for your donation.

“Hydration is key to having a positive blood donation experience. Eat a healthy, low-fat meal prior to giving blood, and ingest a salty snack immediately prior to your appointment. Drink plenty of fluids, and forgo coffee and other caffeine laden beverages as they are diuretics and will affect the outcome.” Dr. Courtney Hopkins, Senior Chief Medical Officer of Vitalant Blood Services.

It’s also important to be well hydrated before showing up to donate blood; coffee is a diuretic and causes dehydration so you should not count your coffee as a “beverage” when preparing to donate blood. While drinking coffee doesn’t draw down your hemoglobin levels, it can cause your body to lose fluids and affect your ability to donate blood. It’s best to drink extra water and lighten up on the caffeine when prepping to give.

How do you ensure an adequate iron level in your diet? There are two types of iron that your body will ingest: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is obtained from meat, poultry, and fish: your body absorbs approximately 30% of the iron from heme sources, and approximately 5 to 12% of iron from non-heme sources such as fruits, vegetables, tofu, nuts, and legumes. You can increase the absorption of iron by including citrus fruits in your diet. Who doesn’t enjoy eating foods containing Vitamin C such as citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, bell peppers, melons, and strawberries?

Some people need supplemental iron even if their daily diet is healthy. For those individuals, Dr. Hopkins recommends taking an iron tablet that contains 18 to 28 mg (or up to 39 mg) of elemental iron per day. This should be considered in consultation with your doctor and can also be obtained at the drugstore after consulting with your pharmacist. Even healthy, regular blood donors may need to supplement iron intake between visits. Usually, it takes a person sixty days to restore healthy hemoglobin levels after a blood donation.

The perk of donating blood to Vitalant is that you will be tested to determine if you have COVID-19 antibodies. You will also be tested for other infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, ZIKA, and West Nile Virus. (You may have contracted the coronavirus and been symptom-free without realizing you had it.) Donors are registered in Vitalant’s donor portal and will have access to test results after donation: qualified donors can provide life-saving plasma donations to those in our community that need your help.

We thank Dr. Courtney Hopkins and our Vitalant team for ensuring that our hospital providers have the blood supply that will save our lives. Please consider donating. We each can make a difference. Please consider giving blood and encourage your family and friends to join you.