Juniors and seniors at Emporia High School met in the auditorium Thursday morning to be encouraged to donate blood with the Red Cross.

Leukemia survivor, Maize High School junior and Red Cross advocate Hannah Soderstrom shared what it’s like to be on the receiving end of blood donations. About a quarter of the people in the auditorium indicated they had previously donated blood.

“First off, I want to thank all of you that raised your hand and said that you’ve donated blood before, because you have saved a life; so thank you very much,” Soderstrom began.

Being a high school junior herself, she connected with students stressing about midterm exams and essays. However, “stressing about school is a lot different than stressing about if you’re going to be able to receive blood or not,” Soderstrom said. She shared with the room about how, when she was 13, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer. She had no idea what it meant or what would happen to her.

Soderstrom underwent chemotherapy, along with more than 50 red blood cell and platelet transfusions. She finished her last treatment in February.

“When you receive blood, you go in feeling kind of tired, kind of miserable,” she said. “You have headaches, you start feeling shortness of breath, nausea, and the minute you start receiving that blood and the minute you’re done ... you feel like you could run a marathon.”

Receiving blood is not always a quick and easy process. It is common for a blood recipient to wait hours for the necessary blood to do a transfusion.

Soderstrom once waited four hours for blood to be transported to the hospital for her, because the hospital did not have her blood type available.

“I’ve seen my parents, who have just sobbed, because they needed someone to give blood; and I’ve seen myself waiting there in pain for someone to give blood just so I could receive it,” she said.

“Just last week, I had a friend waiting in the hospital to receive blood, and she had to get her blood from Topeka, because there wasn’t any in Wichita,” she said. “That’s how important and crucial donating blood is. If she wouldn’t have gotten blood that day, we don’t know where she’d be now.”

Blood has a shelf life of 42 days, and donors can give blood every 56 days. One donation can save up to three lives because of the way red blood cells, platelets and plasma are separated from the whole blood.

“You need to give blood because there are children sitting in the hospital right now,” Soderstrom said. “Not only children — there are adults in the hospital right now — just waiting for someone to … give blood.”

Emporia High School holds the record for the largest Red Cross blood drive in Kansas. In Sept. 2012, a single blood drive raised 169 pints of blood. The high school hosts 10 blood drives per year. Last year, they raised 555 pints of blood.

The next blood drive at the high school is Oct. 31. Students are able to donate during the school day, and community members are encouraged to participate after signing in at the Main Office. The Red Cross presents the challenge to raise more blood than ever before. Donors must be 16 (with parental consent) or over to donate. Hydrate and eat before donating.

“I hope that [the students] understand that it’s not something that the Red Cross is just bugging them about, but it’s an actual need,” Soderstrom said.

Emporia High School senior Cade Kohlmeier said he donated blood once before and was looking forward to the upcoming drive.

“I thought it was really cool how we had someone from Maize High that actually went through receiving blood and not just the donating side,” he said. “We got to see how donating can benefit other people.

“If you are able to, and it’s not going to affect you, then I think that you should donate it, because there are always people that are going to benefit from it.”

Kansas Red Cross District Manager for BioMedical Services Michele Grimm brought Soderstrom to Emporia. They met when Soderstrom was being honored as an advocate in Wichita. Grimm has a son the same age as Soderstrom, and Grimm said thinking about her son going through what Soderstrom did “is terrifying.”

“What her and her parents have been through and overcome is absolutely amazing,” she said. “The fact that they are willing to share their story in order to get more people to donate blood, so others won’t have to go through it, is very heartwarming.”

Grimm also extended her appreciation to the teachers and students who advocate for and rally behind blood donation.

In addition to advocating for Red Cross, Soderstrom was also inspired for her 16th birthday to start her own nonprofit, Even Mermaids Get Leukemia. Throughout her experience fighting cancer, Soderstrom documented the process on social media and used it as a platform for spreading awareness about leukemia and the need for blood donations.

Even Mermaids Get Leukemia grants money to children who have beat cancer and want to get back into normal childhood activities.

“A lot of nonprofits help you at the beginning of your journey but not the end,” Soderstrom said.

The nonprofit grants individuals funds for equipment or activities that help them “get back to being a normal kid,” Soderstrom said, including sports equipment and practice, music lessons and more.

Soderstrom’s life philosophy is all about positivity.

“Positivity is key,” she said. “Staying positive, even in the hardest times, is something that’s hard to do, but it’s going to help you so much … Being negative is not going to fix it.”

To schedule an appointment or get more information on the upcoming Red Cross blood drive at the high school, visit RedCrossBlood.org and type in the Emporia zip code, 66801.

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