Parishes respond to blood shortages with donation drives

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Parishes respond to blood shortages with donation drives

Parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago are hosting blood drives as the nation experiences a shortage of blood and blood products.
Danielle Spearman, Judy West and Raymond Rascoe from Versiti Blood Centers prepare donors at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Oak Lawn on Jan. 23, 2022. The blood drive, sponsored by the men’s club, helped Little Company of Mary and 82 other local hospitals in the midst of a nationwide blood shortage. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tish Gonzalez from Versiti Blood Centers prepares Jim Gannon, a parishioner, to donate blood at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish Jan. 23. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Dr. James Rydel first donated blood as a 17-year-old high school senior at a school-sponsored blood drive.

Now a nephrologist in private practice and at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Rydel, 63, is still a regular blood donor. So when his parish, St. Thomas the Apostle, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave., was looking for a way to reach out to the community, holding a blood drive seemed like a natural fit.

“I think it’s important for the church to be involved in the community and express outward charity,” Rydel said. “There’s a huge shortage of blood in the Chicago area, and it’s critical in the winter.”

St. Thomas the Apostle hosted a blood drive with Vitalant, one of the blood banks that operates in the Chicago area, on Jan. 16. Forty-three people volunteered to donate and 32 units of blood were collected, and the parish has already scheduled a second blood drive for July, according to Father Michael Trail, the pastor. Parishioners who want to donate but could not attend that day can also go to a Vitalant donation center and be part of the parish’s virtual blood drive.

Rydel and Trail said that the event was easy. Before the day of the drive, the blood bank sent a representative to walk through the space — in this case, the gym — and make sure it was suitable. On the day of the drive, someone had to meet the blood bank staff to open the door and set up a few tables. At the end, they had to take those tables down.

It works the same way at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Oak Lawn, where the men’s club hosted its fourth blood drive since January 2021 on Jan. 23 this year.

Men’s club president Ralph Soch said St. Catherine’s pastor, Father Dennis Ziomek, came to him in late 2020 to ask if the men’s club would help. It was not a difficult decision.

“It’s the sheer help to the community,” Soch said. “It’s not just your parish you’re helping.”

When Soch was a boy attending St. Catherine, the parish hosted blood drives for a family with several members who were hemophiliac and needed frequent transfusions. He said he doesn’t know when that ended, but he was happy to revive the tradition.

Versiti, the blood bank St. Catherine of Alexandria works with, was especially happy about the parish blood drive last year, when many organizations were canceling events because of COVID-19. The blood banks follow strict protocols, with staff and donors wearing masks and maintaining social distance as much as possible, he said.

This year’s surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant might be playing a role in the current shortage, which is coming at a time of year when blood supplies are often low, according to Rydel.

Jaelyn Bishop, the communications manager for the northeast region of Vitalant, said the shortage is national.

“Vitalant’s overall blood supply, including the highly transfused type O, has reached the lowest level in two years,” Bishop said in an email. “Vitalant strives to always keep at least a four-day supply on hand to meet the needs of patients every day and be prepared for emergencies that could require significant volumes of donated blood products, but most types are below that level and type O has dropped under a two-day supply.”

Most parish blood drives yield a few dozen units. Each of those units can typically be used to help three people when the blood is separated into its components.

Still, a single patient can require many units, something that Tom and Robin Holum know well. The Holum family has been sponsoring a blood drive at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Arlington Heights every February since their daughter Emily died in 2007.

Emily, the middle of three daughters, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia more than two years before she died at age 7, not from the leukemia but from complications cause by her treatments, including a bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, radiation and many, many blood transfusions.

“She would get red blood cells, platelets, she would get plasma — you’d look at this little girl, and she would get so many blood products in a given day or a given week,” said Tom Holum, Emily’s father. “Without these donors, we wouldn’t have had those two years with her.”

Each year, the parish schedules the blood drive close to Valentine’s Day, Emily’s birthday; this year, it will be Feb. 13. Tom and Robin Holum said it gives them the opportunity to connect with friends who knew Emily and those who learned about her at the blood drive.

The annual drive has become well known, and Kathy O’Neill, Our Lady of the Wayside’s parish nurse, and the Holums use social media to promote it. In 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the blood drive yielded 119 units. In 2021, despite concern that the pandemic would drive numbers way down, 106 units were collected, O’Neill said.

Over the years, the Emily Holum Blood Drive has collected more than 1,200 units, Tom Holum said.

Rydel is hopeful that St. Thomas the Apostle can one day point to similar numbers. Because the parish is so close to the University of Chicago, he said, he hopes that some of the university students develop the same blood donation habit that he has.

“This ties into the message of the church, to preserve and protect life,” Rydel said. “This is a pro-life activity.”

Soch said that it’s a natural fit for churches, who open their doors to the parishioner each Sunday for Mass.

“If you’re going to church, you’re doing things out of generosity already,” he said. “And you’re already here. … You feel good giving blood, and you’re helping people. A lot of times, with everything going on, people feel there is nothing you can do. This is something you can do.”


  • parishes
  • blood drives

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