Should We Harvest Blood From The Dead To End Blood Shortages?

Should We Harvest Blood From The Dead To End Blood Shortages?

Giving blood is one of the best ways to give back to a community. There is always a need for blood. However, to meet this need, one author has suggested something a bit radical: harvesting blood from the deceased.

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Scarcely a week goes by without news of a blood shortage somewhere in the United States. Summertime in particular sees supplies on the wane. With families on vacation and schools out of session, the American Red Cross regularly witnesses a dip in donations.

But with one simple change, blood shortages in the United States could be drastically reduced, or perhaps eliminated entirely. It’s a solution seemingly out of Count Dracula’s playbook: drain blood from the dead.

Unpalatable and macabre at first glance, the idea actually makes a lot of sense. Roughly 15 million pints of blood are donated each year by approximately 9.2 million individuals. Over the course of the same year, about 2.6 million Americans will — sadly — pass away. If hospitals were to harvest the blood from a third of those people, roughly 4.5 million liters would be added to the reservoir.

Contrary to what you might think, blood from cadavers is not only usable, but quite safe.

“For six to eight hours, the blood inside a dead body remains sterile and the red blood cells retain their oxygen-carrying capabilities,” Mary Roach reported in her book Stiff.

In fact, as Roach further described, “For twenty-eight years, the Sklifosovsky Institute [in Moscow] happily transfused cadaver blood, some twenty-five tons of the stuff, meeting 70 percent of its clinics needs.”

The idea has never caught on in the United States, however, primarily out of public distaste. Tampering with the body of a deceased individual frequently evokes ethical conundrums and moral aversions in the minds of many.

However, draining the blood from a body is hardly out of the ordinary; it’s actually a regular part of the embalming process. To prepare a dead body for funeral services and eventual burial or cremation, morticians pump out all of the blood and interstitial fluids and replace them with an embalming solution, typically containing formaldehyde and methanol. Would it not make more sense to remove the blood at the hospital soon after death, rather than let it all go to waste?

Public opinion isn’t the only hurdle to implementing this plan. Without a beating heart, blood does not flow, so hospital staff can’t simply stick a syringe into the median cubital vein on an arm and expect blood to come spurting out. Nor can they necessarily use an embalming machine, which forces the blood out by suffusing the veins and arteries with fluid. That would likely contaminate the blood.

Instead, staff might have to be trained in a more primitive technique. After obtaining familial consent and conducting necessary tests, a larger needle attached to a more voluminous tube would be inserted into the jugular vein at the neck. Then the body would be tilted downward so the blood flows out with the aid of gravity. Simple, effective, yet perhaps a tad morbid…

According to the American Red Cross, someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds, and more than 41,000 donations are needed each day. Taking blood from cadavers could ensure that no patient is ever deprived of the life-giving blood they need.

It’s an interesting idea, but is, perhaps, something America is not quite comfortable with.

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