BANGOR, Maine — Donald Wiswell makes a regular practice of giving blood. It’s not a big deal.
“I just think it’s needed,” he says with a shrug.
The 74-year-old Orrington resident is one of about 200 regular donors at the American Red Cross Donor Center on Hammond Street. Their dedication offsets periodic shortages in the blood supply, such as the national shortage in Type O-negative blood announced earlier this week by the American Red Cross.
Every eight weeks or so, Wiswell drives over to the Bangor center, rereads the eligibility guidelines, answers some questions and completes a brief physical exam.
Then he stretches out on the padded donor table, cracks a few jokes with the white-coated technicians and waits for the sting of the steel needle as it enters the big vein in the fold of his elbow.
Five minutes and a few jokes later, he’s done. The little plastic bag suspended under the bench is bulging with about a pint of his blood. A little more has been collected in color-coded tubes for the battery of tests the blood will undergo in order to ensure its safety before it is processed, sent to a medical center and infused into the veins of a critically injured or ill adult or child.
With a small bandage taped over the puncture site, Wiswell walks to a nearby table and helps himself to a can of apple juice and a bag of Cheez-Its. In 15 minutes, feeling chipper, he’s walking out the door to run some errands before heading home.
But before he leaves, he schedules his next donation, another eight weeks out.
Wiswell figures he has given away about 18 gallons of his blood since he started keeping track a few years back.
“But I gave some back before they started keeping records,” he said during a late-summer visit to the donor center. “I started when I was a teenager.”
While Wiswell’s Type A-negative blood — and all blood types, for that matter — are essential, the Type O-negative blood currently in short supply is especially valuable because it can be infused to any recipient, regardless of the recipient’s blood type.
Christine Bessey, collections operations manager for northern Maine, said Wednesday that donations of all blood types have been down in recent weeks. The Bangor Donor Center aims to collect an average of about 25 units per day, she said.
“We were about 300 units short in September,” she said. “We’re trying to recover and still make our goal for October, but right now, it’s not looking good.” The turnout at recent regional community blood drives hasn’t been encouraging either, she noted.
Although there are predictable seasonal dips in the volume of blood donations, Bessey said the current slowdown is unexpected.
“We don’t really know what’s at work,” she said. The center typically offers a variety of incentives to lure new donors through the doors and keep them coming back, she said, including Red Sox tickets, T-shirts, roses and gift certificates to local stores and restaurants. All incentives are donated, she said.
Bessey said Maine hospitals alone use about 300 units of blood and blood products every day.
Ellen Russell, director of Red Cross blood operations for the state, said from her headquarters in Portland that regular donors such as Don Wiswell are getting hard to find.
“People are busier than they used to be,” she said. “They aren’t home as much. They screen their calls.”
Nationwide, only about 5 percent of eligible donors give blood even once, Russell said. The estimate holds true in Maine as well, she said.
Still, Mainers donate approximately 70,000 units of blood each year, Russell said. The blood is collected a unit at a time at donor centers in Portland and Bangor and at community blood drives throughout the state.
On any given day, Russell said, there may be half a dozen blood drives going on at high schools, colleges, community centers and workplaces around Maine.
Especially in rural areas, she said, blood drives typically draw a lot of donors.
“People see it as a real community social event,” she said.
The same day it is drawn, the blood is packed in coolers and trucked to a processing and storage facility in Dedham, Mass. There, it is tested for the presence of HIV, hepatitis and other viruses as well as for its overall strength and health. Blood that makes the grade is then separated into its components, including red cells, white cells and plasma.
From Dedham, blood products may be shipped anywhere, although New England hospitals receive a great majority.
Back in Bangor, Bessey said the current downturn in donations poses a real challenge and makes regularly scheduled donors such as Donald Wiswell — whose next donation is scheduled for this coming Tuesday — especially valuable.
“But we also rely on walk-ins,” Bessey said. “We try to convert them to regular donors.”
How to donate
The American Red Cross Bangor Donor Center is located at 900B Hammond St. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first and third Saturdays of the month.
In addition, the following area blood drives scheduled:
• 1 to 6 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 19
Dexter High School
12 Abbott Hill Road, Dexter
• 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 20
Carrabec High School
160 N. Main St., North Anson
• 2 to 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 22
Belfast Masonic Lodge
20 Northport Ave., Belfast
• 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 27
Kennebec Valley Community Center
92 Western Ave., Fairfield
For more information or to schedule a donation, call the donor center at 941-2900 or toll-free 800-432-7376.