By Mike Tierney, American Red Cross
May 11, 2023, was a momentous date in the universe of American Red Cross blood donors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tasked with securing the safety of whole blood in the country, announced a change to the donation policies that were based on sexual orientation.
On that same day, Alisa Davies was reclined on a table inside the Village at Topanga mall in Woodland Hills, blood moving from her arm into a donor bag, when Red Cross employees present were notified of the change in donation policies. The FDA announcement was met particularly joyously by the blood technician ministering to Davies, who, until that day had been unable to donate blood, only collect it.
“That was really moving for him,” Davies shared.
All of which made the day doubly memorable for Davies. Some two decades after first trying to contribute blood, the West Hills resident finally had gotten the green light. As a young adult in the 1990s, Davies frequently traveled overseas for work, primarily to England. Because of extended stays ranging up to a month, she became subject to a ban on donating blood.
The culprit was variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, known outside of the medical community as mad cow disease. From 1999 on, U.S. citizens who lived or spent stretches of time in the United Kingdom countries, along with Ireland and France, dating to 1980 were not allowed to roll up their sleeves and part with a pint.
The frightening infection led to between 200 and 300 human deaths and the slaughter of an estimated 4.4 million cattle. Though few cases were confirmed in the U.S., all of which were believed to have resulted from patients contracting the disease abroad, a concern among health care specialists was that the incubation period could last a decade or longer. Complicating matters is that no tests could detect the disease’s infection agents in blood.
In alignment with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidance, affected citizens were ineligible to donate blood, including members of the military who served stints in the nations most impacted by the disease. One of those left on the outside, looking in, was Davies.
“I’d answer all the questions, [on the pre-screening form for donating]” Davies said. “I just never, ever, ever qualified.”
Not until a year ago did the FDA find it safe to bring folks like Davies back into the fold. The Red Cross is attempting to alert those who were previously denied as it updates system records and reinstates ineligible donors. (For questions about donor records, call 1-866-236-3276.)
Davies was surprised when informed of the revision by a friend with the Red Cross. “I said, really?” Davies recalled. “I guess I have to go donate now. I have no excuses left.”
Equipped with a book, Davies showed up for her one and only (so far) appointment on May 11 and found the process “pretty easy, pretty quick. Everyone was very friendly and happy to have me there.” She did feel drained afterward and has pledged to maintain less busy hours following her next session.
Already, Davies is eager to broaden the experience from giving whole blood to trying plasma. Her long wait was finally over.