Baltimore's regional Red Cross is taking an easy-chair approach to drawing blood from the community, and becoming a national model with a speedier process.
The new Donor Express system allows people to give blood while sitting in lightweight lounge chairs arranged in social circles, instead of lying on flat tables or hospital-style gurneys. Procedures have been streamlined to cut the time involved to about 30 minutes.
"We're trying to make sure we have donors who like to donate blood," said David L. Simms, chief executive officer of the Chesapeake and Potomac Region of the Red Cross. "This dramatically simplifies the process."
The regional chapter also broadened its mobile collections at workplaces, a major source of blood donations. Formerly, at least 30 donors were needed to justify a mobile visit. Now, the minimum number of donors is 10, with small vans staffed by crews of two or three people visiting smaller companies.
Officials said the changes were spurred by a decline in donations -- about 2 percent a year -- and the high average age of donors, 55.
National headquarters executives from Arlington, Va., gave the go-ahead for the program in January, Mr. Simms said, and by the end of last month "were ecstatic" about the new process. The test period is still not complete.
Mr. Simms said the Baltimore region, which stretches from northern Virginia to central Pennsylvania, has had to import up to 15,000 pints of blood a year from the rest of the nation because donations did not meet needs. In 1991, he said, 11,000 pints were brought from Bavaria, Germany, to supplement local supplies.
Pat Lakatta, a nurse who is marketing director for the local Red Cross, said the area often runs below a one-day supply of blood to serve 84 hospitals -- despite collection efforts that brought in 800,000 pints in 1994.
A large local catastrophe, such as a hurricane, would create a blood emergency, she said.
Most blood donations to the Red Cross come from the 5 percent of the population working for large corporations, many of which have been cutting work forces, Ms. Lakatta said. Another reason donations have declined is the time it takes to give blood, she said.
Mr. Simms organized a committee last fall to find solutions, and its ideas were implemented this spring. About 80 mobile visits have been conducted using the new equipment and procedures.
Donald P. Kirchoffner, national director of biomedical communications for the Red Cross, said the true test is whether new donors come back and become regulars. So far, he said, "we're very pleased."
"We'll probably roll [the new process] out in the other seven regions," he said. "Everything we hear from the [Baltimore-Washington] region is positive."
Salley Thibodeau, the nurse supervisor this week for a three-day visit to the Baltimore County Office Building on West Chesapeake Avenue, said her crew was the first to use the new system.
"It's just different, not harder," she said. "The process is faster for donors, which is what we want."
Technician Carey Ward, 25, said the new system "gives staff more time to be conversational with donors."
To speed things up, donors now fill out their own medical history forms, and those with appointments can fill them out at home before coming. Blood pressure, pulse and iron levels are checked before blood is given.
Since donors sit up during the process, they can begin replenishing fluids by drinking while they give blood instead of afterward.
Donors giving blood yesterday approved of the changes.
"I think it's great," said Helene E. Kehring, a county worker. "It's less like being in a hospital, and more like being in an easy chair."
Cathy Bancroft agreed. "I love the way it saves time," she said, adding that sitting up is "better than looking at that dirty ceiling."