Giving blood is something that’s close to my heart.

When I was 14 years old, I received seven units of packed red blood cells from strangers during and after spinal surgery. In 2003 when an orthopedist bravely cut the steel rod fused to my spine, readjusted it and inserted new hardware, I got another four units. So I’m keenly aware of this mitzvah, of giving blood. It saves lives.

Today, thousands will donate blood to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a practicing hematologist through 2006, I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon. Over the past week, I’ve scoured blood journals, blood-banking websites and even contacted a few leaders in the field, but found few doctors familiar with the tradition or what’s at least a trend as tracked by the all-knowing Source:

Google search Timeline view (1-16-10)

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It’s not clear exactly when this practice, now seemingly integrated with nationwide MLK National Day of Service events, began. The Orlando Sentinel published an article linking blood donation with MLK on January 14 1988:

Florida Blood Services campaign image January 2010

Donors giving blood from 2 to 7 p.m. Monday at the American Red Cross center, 341 White St., Daytona Beach, will be donating in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Each person will sign a scroll saying they donated blood in King’s memory. That document will be presented to Bethune-Cookman College during a special assembly Wednesday, said JoAnn Lord, Red Cross spokesman.

In response to a similar blood drive, Coretta Scott King wrote: ”The national holiday is a time for personal recommittment to do something — to reach out to your brothers and sisters in the spirit of our common humanity. Certainly the giving of blood so that others may live is a very important way of committing yourself to others.”

Today I spoke with Daniel J. Eberts, corporate communications manager for the Florida Blood Services.  Dan’s been working with that agency for over 22 years. “The goal is to create awareness of the ongoing need for blood,” he says. The agency collects blood every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, he notes.

“Dan the Bloodman” – as Eberts is sometimes called – is not shy in his passion for blood donation. Rather, he’s on YouTube, singing on how you, too, can give blood.

On recent MLK Days the Florida agency has collected between 500 and 700 pints of blood, he reports. The holiday presents a special opportunity to gather additional, much-needed minority registrants for the National Marrow Donor Registry.

Eberts emphasizes how easy it’s become to sign on as a potential donor. “All you need is some cheek swabs,” he says. “There’s no blood sample required. Now, most of the hassle is with the paperwork.”

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Here are some resources for people who’d like to know more about giving blood:

The American Red Cross provides information on when and where to donate blood, as well as helpful instruction on the process of giving for first-time donors.

The AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks, covers transfusions and related therapies.

America’s Blood Centers – a large network of non-profit community blood centers.

The New York Blood Center – a terrific local resource for my neighbors, a pioneer in blood banking and resources for patients worldwide.

For those who’d consider bone marrow donation:

The National Marrow Donor Program helps patients with leukemia and other conditions find matching bone marrow donors.  The agency provides, also, financial assistance to some who can’t afford needed transplants.

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January is National Blood Donor Month. For those who can give, it’s never too late – the need is year-round.

And a personal note of thanks, from me!

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