INTERVIEW: Red Cross Director Carissa Hettich

The Red Cross is an integral part of the world’s effort to take care of people. In charge of 40% of the blood supply nationwide, their many arms are out there trying to find the right match whenever we need them – whether that be for blood or for flood. So we spoke to the Executive Director of the Red Cross for the Cascades Region, and found a person who has spent her work life centered around caring for others and a voice full of enthusiasm. 

TCA: Hi, I’m Sally Lehman, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, we are sitting down with the Executive Director for the Red Cross, Carissa Hettich. Hi, Carissa, thank you for being here. 

Hettich: Hi. Thanks for the invitation. 

TCA: You began your work in the Peace Corps. 

Hettich: Yeah, right after college. I was actually inspired by one of my favorite high school history teachers in the ninth grade. She planted that little seed in my head about doing the Peace Corps and all those things that I carried with me all the way through college and graduated. And it was a very formative time, you know, in your early 20’s. And I had a really great experience and went to El Salvador and did some great work, met some new people, didn’t get too sick, got to do some traveling. So it’s about the best you could ask for.  

And we just celebrated our 20th anniversary on Saturday, we did a Zoom call with like 14 of us in our group. So we all got to see each other after 20 years. 

TCA: And during that 20 years, you joined the Red Cross. How long have you been with them? 

Hettich: I’d say 10 or 11 years total. I worked in three different chapters. So well, I probably tell people I drank the Kool-Aid for the Red Cross in college. I had a really great director that I worked with and I wanted again, formative years, I said I wanted to be just like her. And so I carried that with me in my mind to the Peace Corps.  

That’s my first real job I did was with the Red Cross in North Carolina and never been to the South, never been to the east, but I was kind of single and unattached. I could go where I wanted to go. So I did the Red Cross out there for about a year, and then I knew I wanted to do my master’s degree in nonprofit management. So I eventually migrated to Atlanta, Georgia, which is the big city and had a lot of nonprofits there. I finished my master’s degree and then eventually came back to the Red Cross. And I’ve been there pretty much ten years consistently – about four years in Georgia and then six years here in Oregon. 

TCA: How has COVID-19 affected blood donations? 

Hettich: Well, early on, it was a big shock, as it was with everybody. When March happened and everything shut down, and practically overnight everything was halted and everyone was told to stay home. And that was early, early on in the pandemic.  

The Red Cross blood donations can’t shut down, because if blood donations shut down, then people don’t get blood in hospitals that need it. And so blood is an essential service. So we worked very closely with the national leaders to make it an essential service, to make it safe, to do the COVID protocols, everything that we’ve been doing since the very beginning, because we need blood constantly for leukemia patients, trauma patients, other blood disorders.  

So thankfully, we got the word out quickly and were able to pivot and change. And as a result, we’ve been having a very, quite successful collection of blood early on in 2000 and then all throughout the pandemic last year. And actually there was an increase of donors because people wanted to do something, they wanted to give, and they were stuck at home. They were frustrated with what was going on. They want to give blood. And so we got a lot of first time blood donors that came of it.  

And the other good thing is we really fostered an environment where making appointments was encouraged, because sometimes we would have to rely on walkins because we would always have full drives or full schedules, but then people would forget or they didn’t feel well, they had deferrals. And so we kind of relied on people that just walked off the street because they saw the sign or the bus and they’d donate blood.  

But when COVID happened, we asked for appointments, so we wouldn’t have a bottleneck of people in the waiting room and trying to put five people through an appointment schedule that had two slots. And people really adjusted and made their appointments and followed through on their appointments. And we are oftentimes collecting above goal. So that’s been a very positive thing.  

But there’s always cycles of blood. About Christmas time is always a really difficult time because people are in the holidays. And now as we’re approaching summer, we always have a decrease in blood collection because people are taking vacations. The schools are not in session. We used to host a lot of blood drives in high schools with those kids that would just donate because they’re at school or people that would just donate when they’re at work and with us having a remote workforce still, because we’re still [working] remote, now we’re now we’re facing a summertime of needing more blood donors to come out. 

TCA: How much time do you recommend someone wait for after being vaccinated before donating? 

Hettich: There’s not really a wait time. You just have to – when you go to present – one of the questions [deals with that]. So the FDA is the one that regulates all blood, whether it’s a Red Cross or whether it’s another blood collection group, the FDA sets the questions that all groups have to abide by. And they have questions on there to say, ‘have you been vaccinated?’ And also what your vaccine [manufacturer] is – just so that they’re aware. But there’s really no… ‘you have to wait X amount of time before you can donate blood.’  

So really, you can do it. And you just have to be able to say when you had your first shot, second shot, just for that awareness time. And they’re also testing for COVID antibodies still, as part of that testing because after you donate the blood, they collect all the test tubes and those test tubes are used to test for different things. So they are still testing for COVID antibodies, which was a real draw, especially last year – in 2020. Because people wanted to know ‘was I exposed when I was sick that time in June when I just feel very good and it was really hard to get a swab [test]. 

So about 10 to 14 days after you give [blood], you can login to your blood account and see where your last donation is, and you can pull up what your COVID antibody test was – positive or negative. 

TCA: So with the decrease in traditional surgery schedules over the last year and a half, were you able to increase your blood supply in order to bypass those times when people aren’t donating? 

Hettich: That was a hit with all the elective surgeries that were postponed because they wanted to limit only the most needy cases in the hospital for the potential exposure rates in hospitals. So it did have an impact on blood and the need for blood. But we still have standing orders.  

There’s still sickle cell. There’s still leukemia. There’s still other blood borne diseases. There’s still car accidents and traumas. So there is that regular everyday need for blood. It’s the elective surgeries that took a pause. But now those elective surgeries are coming back onto the schedule, and therefore there’s also a greater need for blood.  

And so during the month of June, the Red Cross is partnering with the American Cancer Society. And we have a nationwide campaign because 25% of the blood that we collect is for cancer patients, and also raising that awareness for that need for blood. 

TCA: So where in Corvallis and Benton County can someone go to donate blood? 

Hettich: We offer blood drives practically every day in the Linn-Benton County area. So the easiest thing to do is to go on to the site. You type in your zip code and find out it just populates the next 15 drives that are coming up. And so you can see what location it’s held at, what the times of day there are, they are usually five hour drive. So it could be from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. or it could be from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. So there’s different days, different times, different locations. And you just look at what’s available for you, and then you can kind of click on that particular site and it lists out the different appointment times that are still open to sign up 

TCA: And does someone need to have a Red Cross donor account in order to take one of those times? 

Hettich: So you can be a first time blood donor. And therefore, you have to create an account online. If you want to make an appointment online, you actually need to set up your name so you can log on to it. And it also tracks your giving history. So you do have to set up an account to get into it.  

But that also gives you the ability to schedule an appointment or cancel the appointment or reschedule it for a different day. All of that you can do online quick and easy. I do it all the time because I’ll think ‘oh, I have a meeting scheduled on that day, I’ll have to pick another day.’ So I do it myself. And that’s obviously the best way to schedule blood drives.  

TCA: What else does the Red Cross do in Corvallis? 

Hettich: Well, when people think of Red Cross, they think of usually blood and flood. They think of us on the blood side of the house where we manage for 40% of the nation’s blood supply. I was looking at some recent statistics and they said that across the country we have a need of 36,000 units of red blood cells every single day, just red blood cells, 36,000 units a day have to be collected in order to meet the needs. That doesn’t include plasma or platelets. Those are like 6,000 and 10,000 units a day. And so I think the critical thing for people to know about blood is that for every unit of blood, which is like a pint that you donate, it can be divided into three different components – red blood cells, plasma, and platelets. So the red blood cells, the typical blood donation that you think of, those are actually good and on the shelf for 42 days – they have a shelf life of 42 days. It’s not on the shelf for 42 days as it gets used a lot quicker than that. Platelets has a shelf life of only five days, so it takes about three days, two to three days to test it and then you have two days to get it into somebody.  

So platelets are a very special blood, but it constantly has to be in motion. So it’s kind of on like rockers to kind of keep it from… 

TCA: Coagulating? 

Hettich: Coagulating. Good job. You know, your blood, right? Yeah.   

When it comes to blood donation, you can donate every 56 days. And so people think ‘I’ll go, I donate once a year.’ But, you can actually donate, if you time it right, six times a year. And so what we really want is to have regular blood donors. So someone who could, donates twice a year, can move to four times a year and just kind of make it a pattern.   

I personally just reached my third gallon mark. I just donated blood last week, and I got my third gallon, about 24 units of blood.  

The other thing with blood to consider is that out of 100 people, 33% of people are eligible to give blood. Which means they don’t have travel deferrals – like they travel to certain countries and have to be on the deferral list for a year. Medication, iron levels, age, weight, all those deferrals. Those 33 out of 100 people are able to give blood, but 3% actually give blood.   

So that means our nation’s blood supply is running on 3% of our population.   

A lot of times, people want to give after a major event, like after a tragic event where they want to help support people. The blood that’s used to help those people came three to four days earlier and not [immediately] afterwards. And so if we just had a regular blood supply, we would have a flowing blood chain.  

And the other really important thing is having a diverse blood supply because within blood, there are about 160 antigens, which are little markers. For cancer patients, you have to have a pretty accurate match for antigens especially if you have leukemia. And some people have very, very rare [needs]. It’s not just ‘oh, I’m A+, O-, AB’ it’s that it’s the antigens within the blood. So the more diverse blood supply we have, the better opportunity we have to match patients to their unit of blood.  

TCA: So is there a way to go out and find out people’s blood types and antigens that would assist you in contacting people down the road to say, ‘hey, we need more of your blood’? 

Hettich: So every time you give blood, when you’re first blood donor, you’re going to be sent a donor ID card. I personally am A+. So on my donor ID card, it says I’m A+ and that’s what I know I am.   

I don’t know what my antigens are because that’s a hospital laboratory thing, but they test it for antigens. So in hospitals, they will want to kind of pair up, especially for sickle cell – which is predominantly [an] African-American [disease]. It’s actually the largest hereditary blood disorder – sickle cell. About 100,000 people are affected by sickle cell. It’s really tragic nationwide. And they want to find the best matches because sickle cell patients can have transfusions every four to six weeks, and they need to have that diverse blood supply to support it.   

That’s one of the reasons why Red Cross started. Last year was a major turning point for us in regards to blood supply, because everyone was told to stay home, don’t go anywhere, do all that. We had a major decrease of African-Americans that came to donate blood. And also they [those with sickle cell] were also disproportionately health affected.  

They were not leaving their house. They could have been blood donors. And so what we ended up doing on a nationwide scale is we have what’s called the Sickle Cell Gap, which is a program we started last fall. We’re doing a lot more work here within the Cascade region, which is all of Oregon and Southwest Washington. And we reached out to the NAACP in Linn and Benton County and they hosted a blood drive for us in November last year as a response to the awareness, as well as our efforts to have more African-Americans donate blood. 

TCA: So a sickle cell patient would need blood that came from a person who is of African heritage? 

Hettich: Predominantly, yes, predominantly. It’s the closest match. Asians and Latinos are also affected by sickle cell, but not at the rate. It’s like 93% African-American and a much smaller percentage for Latino and Asian. Caucasians can’t. And the antigens are all hereditary. So we don’t have the antigens that have that perfect match. 

TCA: Well, thank you very much for your time and all of our readers and viewers out there, I encourage you to go find a blood bank, go to the Red Cross and donate.  

By Sally K Lehman