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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Pam Barcalow, who has donated blood for 45 years, says having Total cereal has helped rebuild her iron levels.

Iron key to healthy donations

After rejections, longtime donor changes regimen

Pam Barcalow donated her first pint of blood when she was 19 years old.

She did it as a way of giving thanks for her own good health and because she knew others weren’t as lucky.

And she has continued to donate for the past 45 years, save for a few bumps in the road during her occasional treks to blood drives and the Red Cross.

“About every fourth time, they’d say, ‘I’m sorry, your iron is too low,’ ” the now 64-year-old Fort Wayne woman says.

Barcalow, who has not been turned away for a couple of years after making a slight tweak to her diet, has not been alone.

There are about 2.4 million frequent donors found to be iron-deficient, according to U.S. research released last year.

The government is now looking at iron levels as part of an $87.2 million study on blood donation and transfusion safety.

Low iron can lead to fatigue, compromised mental function and eventually anemia, and the numbers released by the government are coming at a time when the blood supply is suffering from shortages.

Seventy percent of the blood supply comes from repeat donors, and limiting their giving can add to shortages.

The Red Cross of Northeastern Indiana is reporting that blood donations are down 10 percent now more than other times of the year.

Officials with the Red Cross said they saw a similar decline during the summer last year.

Donors who give to the Red Cross are told about the dangers of low iron levels and are offered advice on how to combat the condition.

They’re told about multivitamins as an iron supplement and about an iron-rich diet, but the Red Cross does not provide anything other than information.

“Of course donors should discuss their blood level with a doctor, to see if they need an iron supplement or how often they should donate,” said Karen Kelley, local Red Cross communications director.

A woman younger than 50 who gives two or more times a year would be considered a frequent donor, Kelley said. So too would a woman older than 50 who donates three or more times a year and a man of any age who donates three or more times a year.

A donor who gives a whole pint of blood is prohibited from donating again for 56 days, Kelley said.

Someone who donates blood platelets – used to treat cancer patients – can donate every seven days up to 24 times a year, according to the Red Cross.

And that’s what Barcalow and her husband, Doug, usually donate.

Barcalow said she at one point was going to donate every month.

But there were those times when, after checking her hemoglobin levels, those at the Red Cross would tell Barcalow her iron levels were too low to donate. “I felt like a failure,” she said of those times.

She never felt the effects of low iron, Barcalow said. She was never tired, never fatigued, never anemic. “I’m not a big meat eater,” she said of her diet, noting meat is typically high in iron. “I love fruits and veggies. That’s just what I like to eat.”

On a whim, a few years ago she began eating Total cereal since the box talked up the product’s iron content. Ever since she’s never been denied her chance to give blood.

“My feeling is, you can get by at a certain (iron) level, but to just protect your body, they (at the Red Cross) want it a little higher than the norm,” Barcalow said of her health and the fact she had occasionally been prohibited from giving blood.

“I eat Total three or four days a week, and I have not once been deferred since,” she said.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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