Blood services were considerably different back in 1982 when Susan Parmer started as a staff nurse with the American Red Cross Blood Services . In those days, the organization didn’t have its now-recognizable bloodmobile. She and the other nurses just piled in a fleet of navy-blue Town & Country station wagons and “ran the roads” of Vermont and northern New Hampshire for days at a time, in all kinds of weather.
The “product” was either kept on ice or shuttled back to Burlington for distribution to nearby hospitals.
Parmer rose through the ranks to become CEO of the Northern New England Region, which collects about 194,000 pints per year and is the primary source of blood for 80 hospitals in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. The region collects so much of the red stuff that some of it gets exported to places where there are shortages due to higher demand.
Parmer, 59, retires in early October, after nearly three decades on the job. Appropriately, her hair is still flaming red.
SEVEN DAYS: What percentage of the population actually gives blood?
SUSAN PARMER: Across the United States, between 3 and 4 percent of the population donates. In my region, Northern New England, particularly in Vermont and, more particularly, Chittenden County, we blow the socks off the rest of the country. In Chittenden County, we’re at about 15 percent. In Vermont and the rest of my region, we hover at around 6 to 9 percent.
SD: Why do you think that’s the case?
SP: I chalk it up to the fact that we’re primarily a rural environment, with a lot of history. The blood program here started in the ’50s, and for many communities we go to, the bloodmobile coming through town is just what you do. You go and give blood and you hang out at the canteen. It’s like town meeting. Clearly, there are more challenges to collecting blood in urban areas — the frenetic pace and more people on the go. But here, folks know who the Red Cross is.
SD: What was the biggest change in your 30-year career?
SP: A real turning point for us was HIV/AIDS. I remember when we all started reading about HIV before we really understood it, our medical directors and staff knew it was something very, very big and it would change the dynamics of blood banking and the blood industry irrevocably. And it has.
SD: Is the ban on donations from gay men still in effect?
SP: It is. The Red Cross has been a strong proponent of changing that, because we now know that it is safe, based on the questions we ask and the screening process of the donor and the blood itself.
SD: Who sets that policy?
SP: The FDA. Even though this raw material is given to us, we operate just the same way as a pharmaceutical manufacturing company operates, the same guidelines. So, we’re not processing pills and powder. Our raw material comes from the generosity of people.
SD: Are more people now excluded from donating?
SP: Yes and no. When I first began, we had an upper age limit. So, if you were over 65, you couldn’t give blood. It was for the safety of the donor. People felt 30 years ago that you really needed to keep your own blood in your own body. Now, there’s no upper limit. We’ve had some beautiful stories of ninetysomethings giving blood.
SD: What’s the minimum age?
SP: That’s another change over the years. When I first started, you had to be 18 with parental permission. Then it dropped to 17. Now, we’re introducing legislation in Vermont to get on board with 16-year-olds. More than half the Red Crosses in the system allow 16-year-olds to donate. The other new event from a medical perspective: There’s a movement called “blood conservation.” In a nutshell, the best place to store your blood is in your own body. So, when I was in nursing school more than 30 years ago, we used to transfuse women who had a baby, just to boost them up a little. Now, people have varying levels of anemia and go home with iron pills to boost them up naturally.
SD: Are more people excluded because of overseas travel?
SP: That’s probably one of our biggest exclusions. A lot of folks under 20 are traveling more than older folks ever dreamed of at a young age. So, as the world gets smaller, and there are more opportunities to go to countries with malarial exclusions, that’s posed some big challenges for us. And then, of course, there have been some exclusions for people who’ve gotten tattoos or piercings.
SD: How has the need for blood changed during your tenure?
SP: I’ve seen it go through years of exponential growth, to years where we only had to change our annualized collection goals. Trending-wise, in almost 30 years, it’s always gone up. Our three states bring in about 194,000 pints of blood a year. We must bring that in. That’s based on our forecasting, our work plan, our demand … It’s still a big part of chemotherapy treatment — for instance, when patients’ platelet counts drop, we need to be at the ready with platelets, that kind of thing. Back in the day, when I first started, we had big increases, because open-heart surgery would sometimes take 48 pints of blood. Now, folks can have open-heart surgery and not even need to be transfused. With knee and hip replacements, the blood bank sometimes set up patients with three to four pints of blood for each surgery. Now, maybe a pint or two.
SD: What’s driving up the need for blood right now?
SP: To sum it up in real time, what’s driving the need in 2011 is the baby boomers. There’s just so many more of us out there now. It’s not one form of disease. It’s the overall pressure on the health care system.
SD: What’s your proudest accomplishment?
SP: Well, I’m pretty competitive, so I like the fact that our region — Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — is really viewed as a darling region. We’re very proud here. We give blood here! We love it. And we’re a little unconventional. The best thing you can do is tell us we can’t do something and we go out there and prove them wrong. We’re known for going out in horrible weather because we know that in Colebrook, New Hampshire, they’re waiting for us.
SD: What was the public’s response after the 9/11 attacks?
SP: Within 45 minutes we had people coming over. I know there were stories like this all over the country, but I can’t believe anything topped what happened in Vermont. For that week we set up in Patrick Gym, we had business owners coming over with their products — TVs for the donors to watch, people giving massages, people coming from drug stores with toothbrushes — and it went on and on. People just wanted to help. We were down at a blood drive in Middlebury that day. We should have rolled in to Burlington at about 7 p.m. that night. We rolled in at midnight. That’s how our life was for a good two weeks.
SD: Do you plan to capitalize on the 10th anniversary of 9/11?
SP: We are. We’re going to be back at Patrick Gym. I think there’s something about a 10th anniversary that’s profound. People are going to say, “I was in line at Patrick Gym that day, and I’m going back.”