Senior Kelly Berwick said she has attempted to donate blood at least 10 times in her life. She has been turned away five of those times due to iron deficiency.
Her situation is common to GW.
GW has the highest iron deficiency rate of schools in the area, said Benjamin Ruder, the CEO of Donors for Life. His organization works with Colonial Donors to recruit student blood donors at GW. Thirty-five percent of GW students who try to donate are not able due to iron deficiency, as opposed to 25 percent at surrounding schools, he said.
In order to give blood, a donor must give a detailed health history to the blood collection organization and submit to an iron count. If the person is ineligible to give blood, he or she is turned away by the organization.
“It is these eligible donors that I see come to a blood drive, expect to be able to donate and walk away with a Hematocrit (lack of iron) Deferral Sheet stating that their iron was not at the appropriate level for donation,” said Kara Williams, president of the Colonial Donors.
Williams said GW’s dining program is a major factor in iron deficiency at GW.
“I believe this is in large part due to the lack of dining halls on campus,” Williams said. “GW needs to improve dining hall facilities to have a greater range of food options.”
Frederick Rickles, a professor of medicine, pediatrics and physiology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, disagrees with Williams. He said iron deficiency is usually not due to a person’s diet.
“The data on deferrals of blood donors on the GW campus should be analyzed separately for men and women, since women in the U.S. are almost always iron deficient due to menstrual blood loss rather than poor diet,” Rickles said.
Ruder said iron deficiency in women is not always the result of menstrual blood loss. He said poor eating habits can contribute to a low iron count and that universities with traditional dining halls have lower deferral rates because of iron deficiency.
This year, the University revamped J Street, its main dining venue on campus. J Street now features healthier options for students including stations for salads and sandwiches.
“GW offers a wide variety of dining options and has made significant improvements to J Street to meet student demand for healthier choices,” said Tracy Schario, a University spokesperson. “Students must take responsibility to eat smartly and eat a balanced diet. Traditional cafeterias do not guarantee eating responsibly.”
The American Red Cross recommends that people interested in donating blood eat foods high in iron. These foods include cereal, leafy green veggies, beans, red meat, raisins and oatmeal.
In addition to low iron levels, there are other factors that will cause a potential blood donor to be deferred. A blood donor must be at least 110 pounds to donate and males who have ever had sexual contact with other males are automatically deferred, as well as females who have ever had sexual intercourse with a homosexual male.
“This rules out a large number of donors in the gay community on campus,” Williams said.
Neha Shah, president of Allied in Pride, a GW student organization which advocates for gay rights, said medical advancements made in recent years have made the deferral policy for gay males obsolete.
“This homophobic policy prevents thousands of members of the LGBT community from participating in the fight against blood shortage,” said Shah, a sophomore. “New tests that can detect HIV shortly after infection make this draconian policy unnecessary.”
Colonial Donors held 31 bloods drives on campus last year. Last week, Colonial Donors had to cancel a blood drive in the Smith Center because of birds in the arena. The organization held a blood drive on Wednesday and will be having blood drives on Nov. 28 and 29 in the Marvin Center Grand Ballroom.