Published January 31. 2013 3:00PM Updated February 01. 2013 4:46PM
Norwich — Southeastern Connecticut residents who donate blood regularly no longer have to follow announcements of blood drives and work it into their schedules.
The Red Cross Connecticut Blood Services Region on Thursday held a grand opening at its third permanent blood donation center in the state, located in the Staples shopping plaza at 45 Salem Turnpike-Route 82, a short distance from the Interstate 395 Exit 80 ramp.
The Norwich Blood Donation Center occupies 1,700 square feet of space on the left side of the Staples store and will be open Mondays and Thursdays from 12:30 to 6 p.m.
The center actually opened several months ago — long enough for regular donor Lynn Johnson of Preston to have donated three times at the location — but Red Cross officials wanted to wait before holding a grand opening. During Thursday's celebration, the center also was still interviewing staff applicants.
Regular blood donors who had made appointments for Thursday were surprised to be greeted by a crowded room with media cameras, a radio broadcast and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, lying on a table giving a "double red cell" donation through new technology.
"I wasn't planning to come to the celebration," Norwich resident Marge Blizard said. "I was just planning to give blood."
"I'm a big fan," Norwich building inspector Joe East said. "I'm just here to donate."
Paul Sullivan, chief executive officer of the Red Cross Connecticut Blood Services Region, said the Red Cross wanted to have a permanent presence in southeastern Connecticut. The state's other blood donation centers are in Farmington and Norwalk.
Sullivan said the center will add to, not replace, the numerous blood drives hosted by churches and other civic groups and businesses throughout the region.
Connecticut needs about 150,000 units of blood per year and must import about 10,000 units because of shortfalls in collections in-state. The new Norwich Blood Donation Center is expected to bring in 100 donors per week, he said.
Six beds are set up for regular collections, and two beds are adjacent to the new double red cell donation machines, called the ALYX Component Collection System.
Sullivan said the new technology has been in use for about three months.
Registered nurse Janique Gill of Glastonbury described the process to Courtney as he pumped a red rubber ball during his donation. Gill said the double red cell donation takes longer, about 30 minutes instead of the regular blood donation time of eight minutes. The donor's blood is separated in the machine into red blood cells and platelets.
Toward the end of the process, platelets and saline equal to the amount of blood donated is injected back into the donor's body. The red blood cells are retained and are especially valuable to cancer patients and people with certain illnesses who need transfusions.
For the donor, it counts as two blood donations, making the person ineligible to give blood again for 112 days instead of the usual waiting period of 56 days.
Courtney said he has given blood before, but not for a "long time," and never using the double red cell system.
"This is a new experience for me," Courtney said on the radio as the saline was pumped into his body.