Students make a difference with blood, plasma donations

Tarah Westover helps Morgan Smith relax and recover from donating blood on Wednesday afternoon.
Tarah Westover helps Morgan Smith relax and recover from donating blood. (Universe Photo)

Donating blood and plasma are popular ways regular people reach out and save the rest of the world. Psychological research suggests altruistic, social and personal values drive them to donate.

Understanding why people donate

A 2013 Social Science & Medicine article says psychological factors, such as self-efficacy, role identity, social norms and experience, explain why donating is so important to donors.

New donors are more likely to donate if their peers do. They feel relief from an obligation to donate after a first donation.

But good experiences encourage them to keep donating. Once donating becomes a habit, it can be hard to stop. “Regret was more influential for experienced donors who would be more aware of the benefits they would sacrifice if they missed opportunities to donate,” the study said.

People feel good when they donate, BYU psychology professor Chad Jensen said of the study. They feel confident donating because it’s easy and rewarding; they feel like their generosity benefits people who need help.

Beliefs can also drive them to donate. “People believe there’s a moral obligation, or altruism, that seems to make a big difference,” Jensen said. “It doesn’t seem to be altruism alone, but there’s some sort of moral contract that motivates you to donate blood, in which case you’re helping people who might benefit from blood donation.”

Donating blood to fill a constant need

Justine Arnold would never have been born if it weren’t for blood donors. Her father lost more than half of his blood from a boating accident five years before she was born. He would have died without blood donations.

Arnold started donating whole blood five years ago, before starting college. “I felt like it was my duty to pay it forward,” she said.

She discovered her blood type was O-, the universal donor type that tends to be in short supply. “That motivated me even more since my blood could literally help anyone who needed it,” she said.

An aerial view shows a student giving blood at the BYU Blood Drive. (Universe Photo)
An aerial view shows a student giving blood at the BYU Blood Drive. (Universe Photo)

Hospitals and patients always need blood donations. 40,000 pints of blood are needed every day to cover hospitals’ needs and to prepare for unexpected disasters, according to

BYU Y-Serve hosts a blood drive on campus every month for two to five days. The turnout is usually good enough to fulfill the Red Cross’s goal of 30 pints of blood, said program director Elena Hirst, a program.

But they could always use more donors, especially at the beginning and end of semesters when students are too busy or sick to donate.

These BYU trends match the national pattern that Kimberly Houk, American Red Cross communications manager, sees. “Utah is a great state when it comes to giving of themselves to benefit their community,” she said. But summer vacations and winter holidays and illnesses yield fewer donations.

Someone in the U.S. still needs blood every two seconds, according to a Red Cross fact sheet.

BYU students’ motivations reflect psychological findings. Y-Serve’s 2013 “I Give Blood Because” campaign brought various responses: students like the treats they get after giving blood; they have a highly demanded blood type that can save all recipients; they feel an intrinsic reward; they bond with spouses or roommates; or they know a part of themselves can save lives with little time or pain.

Donating plasma to help the one

Plasma, the liquid in blood, carries water, antibodies and proteins to the body. Nutrients control bleeding, fight infections and protect against life-threatening illnesses. People with insufficient nutrients develop rare, chronic conditions and regularly depend on plasma-derived medicines to live healthy lives.

Plasma donation is different from blood donation. A needle collects a donor’s blood, and then a special machine separates the plasma from the blood and returns the blood to the donor through the needle. The whole process can take an hour and a half to two hours for repeat donors.

Repeat donors can donate twice in a seven day period with a full day in between donations.

Vlasta Hakes, director of public affairs for Grifols, a global health care company that produces plasma-derived medicines from its donation centers, said each center receives 1000 donations a week. “We operate centers in Utah because it has a healthy donor population and a strong employee pool,” Hakes said.

There are more than 150 Grifols centers throughout the United States. Provo has two centers; Orem has one.

Centers in Utah pay donors, but money isn’t always the sole motivator. Psychological drives and the high demand influence plasma and blood donors.

Provo native Rachel Wheatley loves donating plasma. She originally started for the money, but she realized how important her contributions were in saving lives after seeing the facts on a waiting room TV.

It takes 900 plasma donations to treat one patient with genetic emphysema, a condition where damaged air sacs in the lungs cause a hacking cough and difficulty breathing, for one year, according to It takes 1300 donations to treat one patient with hemophilia, a bleeding disorder, for one year.

“For some reason, seeing that…made it real to me,” Wheatley said. “So now I realize it’s the best of both worlds for myself and for those I’m helping.”

Following the donations

Smart phone users can download the American Red Cross app to make appointments, view donation history, see if a specific blood type is needed in an area, share photos and track blood donations when possible.

Donors can follow companies’ social media campaigns to stay updated and give feedback. Grifols asks donors to share why they donate with the hashtag #WhatsYourReason. The American Red Cross asks donors to help them spread awareness and bounce back from fewer blood donations in the summer with the hashtag #RestocktheShelves.

Donors can learn about the plasma donating and medicine-making processes work with Grifols videos.

Although donors don’t always see exactly who benefits from their donations, patients and their loved ones do every day.

Arnold is one example. She saw firsthand how vital donations are to saving a life.

“I feel it is extremely important to donate if you are eligible,” Arnold said. “It’s amazing that we can give something to someone that is life-saving but only costs us just a bit of our time. There aren’t too many gifts like that.”

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