Recent blood shortage sparks discussion to bring back Elvis Sheppard drive on Big Island
April 24, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
* Updated April 24, 6:51 AM
The blood supply has always fluctuated within the state of Hawaiʻi, but the situation was dire on Easter weekend when there was only a day-and-half worth of type O blood.
The Blood Bank of Hawai‘i — which provides blood products to all hospitals in the state — put a call out through news outlets and social media to donors living on O‘ahu to visit one of its three collection sites or two mobile drives on the island. People heard the call and responded, replenishing the supply of type O blood.
“We would love to have three days worth of blood supply of all types at all times,” said Fred McFadden, Blood Bank of Hawaiʻi’s donor services director. “There are people who need transfusions every day.”
Jen Davis knows that all too well. In 2017, less than a month away from her wedding to Elvis Sheppard, he was in a motorcycle accident.
Anne Broderson, a nurse at Kona Community Hospital at the time and friend to the 43-year-old, said Sheppard was given 70 units of blood products to keep him alive. At one point, the hospital ran out of platelets and Broderson drove to Hilo Medical Center in the middle of the night to obtain more blood products. But despite the effort, Sheppard did not make it.
To honor his memory and do something about the need for blood products on the Big Island, Davis and Broderson turned their grief to action three months after his death and held the first annual Elvis Sheppard Blood Drive.
It was successful, running for three consecutive years. In 2019, the drive broke the state record for the most donations in a single-day drive with 299 donors. But like a lot of other things, it came to a screeching halt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the recent supply scare, Davis said it is a perfect time to bring the drive back.
“Elvis used four bodies worth of blood,” Davis said. “When we donate, whole blood gets split up into three things: red blood cells, platelets and plasma.”
Hawai’i is unique because of its geography. When the recent emergency call went out of type O blood donations, people on the neighboring islands, including the Big island, could not directly contribute to the need.
There are no permanent blood collection sites outside of O’ahu in the state due to a lack of staff and resources.
For neighbor island donation drives, a staff of 15 to 16 people must be flown in from O‘ahu. They usually spend three consecutive days on an island, collecting an average of 150 donations per day.
Prior to the pandemic, the rotation brought blood drives to each neighbor island once every two months. Now, it’s only once every four months. At this time, McFadden said they will keep up with this schedule and ramp up collections on O‘ahu where they can.
“It’s been a struggle to keep staff, like everywhere else,” McFadden said. “It took a herculean effort to get back to the schedule that we’re now on. … While we’re not on the island as often as we were, we’re collecting more blood.”
Judy Donovan, spokesperson at Kona Community Hospital, said the Blood Bank of Hawai‘i tries to stock island hospitals with extra blood products because of the added transportation time needed to ship blood from Honolulu.
Still, the facility has experienced shortages over the last several months, she said.
At any given time, Kona Community Hospital has about 75 units of packed red blood cells on hand, some fresh frozen plasma and 2 to 4 platelet apheresis units (which are equivalent to approximately 5 to 6 pooled units).
“We average between 80 and 90 units of packed red blood cells per month but at any given time a trauma can quickly use up our supply,” Donovan said.
That certainly was the case with Sheppard.
“I still cannot believe we were ambitious enough to pull off that blood drive…” Broderson said.
The purpose also was to educate the public about the misconceptions of blood donations and how one donor can really save a life.
To pull off the Elvis Sheppard blood drives, the Blood Bank of Hawai‘i closed all of its O‘ahu collection sites so staff could support the Big Island events, which were held at the Sheraton Hotel and Resorts in Kona.
“The leadership of Jen and Anne made all the difference,” said Jonette Correia, recruitment manager at the blood bank. “It’s their connection to the community that brought the donors out.”
Correia said the nonprofit would love to work with Broderson and Davis again on the Elvis Sheppard Blood Drive. Her hope is to start discussions on hosting the legacy drive by the end of this year or sometime next year.
“Their hearts are just always in the right place,” Correia said.
During the regularly scheduled drives to the Big Island, Correia said she’ll reach out to Broderson and Davis to see if they can send donors over to their collection sites.
Davis said there is a need to get the drive going again, and she can’t do it without volunteers.
“Over time, people aren’t going to know who Elvis is and there isn’t that connection,” Davis said. “The blood drive needs an advocate, and I was willing to stand up and cry in front of people and ask for help.”
Davis said it’s important that people are able to connect with a reason to give blood, not the person who started this.
“It saddens me that in the state of Hawai‘i isn’t self-sufficient,” Davis said.
Now, when there are shortages in the state’s blood supply, Blood Bank Hawai‘i has to import from the mainland to fill the gap, which also is more costly.
“We always want to be self-sufficient,” McFadden said. “We’ll move blood products around to fill the needs in the moment.”
Broderson said: “All of us internally would like to do [the Elvis Sheppard Blood Drive] again, but we’re waiting for the right time for when the blood bank has the staff to come out and do it.”
She said it is important “not only for the people who personally knew Elvis but also for generating that excitement to be continued blood donors. Having that personal connection, it helps people stay engaged.”
There are two blood drives coming up on the Big Island. The first is scheduled for May 16-18 in Hilo at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel, located at 1373 Kīlauea Ave. The second will take place on June 20-22 in Kona at 75-230 Kalani St.
Click here for information on how to donate blood or find an upcoming blood drive. For those interested in getting involved with the Elvis Sheppard Blood Drive, email [email protected].