If Dr. Robert Elson had his way, President Reagan would deposit some blood in a stainless-steel freezer on the fifth floor of a West Los Angeles medical office building.
There, chilled to an Antarctic 85 degrees below zero Celsius (about 120 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), the President's blood would await the uncertainties of the future, pint-sized packets of insurance against the day when the Chief Executive might need a transfusion. By storing his own blood, the President would be protected from the threat of AIDS and other blood-transmitted diseases, Elson maintains.
For Elson, this is not a fantasy. It is the logical extension of remarks the President made in an interview with The Times recently when he suggested that people worried about contracting acquired immune deficiency syndrome from transfusions stockpile their own blood. "Why don't healthy and well people give blood for themselves?" Reagan said.
Letter to President
In response, Elson, who has frozen his own blood and plans later to have his wife's blood frozen, said he sent a letter to Reagan, offering to preserve the President's blood for use when he is on the West Coast.
Elson, a gastroenterologist, is the medical consultant and spokesman for HemaCare-Westside, one of a half-dozen or so private blood banks around the country that specialize in storing or freezing blood for those who don't trust the traditional blood supply. Scattered across the country from California to New York, these private blood banks account for an infinitesimal amount of the nation's blood supply. But what they represent--as a potential threat to traditional blood suppliers such as the Red Cross--and what these companies allege about the nation's blood supply have been big enough to create a raging debate.
For instance, Reagan's remarks sparked widespread criticism, including a statement from the American Red Cross charging that stored or frozen blood was useful only "for the relatively few people who know that they will require blood in the near future and are able to donate the blood needed in advance."
There is general agreement on only one point: An individual's blood--technically known as "autologous" blood--is indeed the safest source for transfusions. Beyond that, the reasons for disagreement multiply almost endlessly.
On one side, the country's biggest suppliers of blood (most of it donated) say that the blood supply, while not perfectly safe, is as safe as practical. They note that current tests, including one for AIDS antibodies, virtually eliminate the chance of receiving tainted blood.
Frozen blood, they say, is expensive and highly unlikely to be available for immediate use in case of severe traumas. They also charge that private companies freezing blood--which can be stored for as long as three years--are out to make a quick dollar by playing on the public's fear of AIDS and other diseases. Furthermore, such private blood banks could create a climate in which the country's supply of blood for general use--already subject to periodic or chronic shortages in many places --would be further reduced.
Currently about 4 million people require transfusions of 14 million units of blood and blood components each year, according to the American Assn. of Blood Banks. Transfusions caused 2%--or 171 out of 8,529--of all AIDS cases last year, and officials attribute most such cases to transfusions made before a national blood-screening program against AIDS was started in April 1985.
From 2,500 to 5,000 Americans are estimated to have received blood that contained AIDS antibodies. Health authorities say the test is not perfect and generates some false positives and false negatives for exposure to AIDS antibodies. As of mid-June, 21,726 cases of AIDS had been reported in this country.
On the other side, the private blood bank operators say they have responded to a public need, that their methods--including testing beyond normal requirements--are safer and that the risk of disease or adverse reaction through transfusions from the general blood supply has been downplayed and distorted.
The Financial Side
While private frozen-blood banks have been in operation less than a year, the operators say it's obvious that no one is going to get rich quick. A Phoenix-based company is "restructuring" its prices and a spokesman for a New York company said some frozen-blood businesses are likely to fail because they can't weather the start-up period.
In personal and telephone interviews around the country, it became clear that opponents and supporters of frozen blood are passionate defenders of their positions and that emotions are seldom far removed from the scientific discussions of blood, blood components and the elusive agents of disease.
For instance, Elson said operations such as HemaCare may be the pathfinders for a revolution in the blood business.