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Samantha Peterson wears a mixed reality headset to see an augmented view of the Field Museum while giving blood, Feb.. 27, 2024. Abbott created the headsets to provide a distraction and relieve stress during blood donations. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
Samantha Peterson wears a mixed reality headset to see an augmented view of the Field Museum while giving blood, Feb.. 27, 2024. Abbott created the headsets to provide a distraction and relieve stress during blood donations. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
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Samantha Peterson sat in a reclining chair with a headset stretched across her face. Colorful lights danced over her eyes as she peered around the room. Through the glasses, a holographic garden bloomed.

Meanwhile, a narrow tube protruded from her forearm into a blood bag dangling below. She was the latest donor to try mixed reality technology at a blood drive at the Field Museum on Tuesday. 

“It feels like I’m on drugs, in a cool way,” Peterson, 33, said with a laugh. “You’re in this beautiful forest. It helps to distract you.”

The technology, launched by Abbott and Blood Centers of America last year, is designed to ease the experience of blood donation. Participants wear lightweight headsets as they give blood, while a soothing voice guides them through a glowing garden. 

“Blood donation, we wanted to reframe it as an experience,” said Alex Carterson, divisional vice president of medical, clinical and scientific affairs at Abbott. “Mixed reality offers this innovative, immersive digital experience while giving blood.”

The technology comes amid one of the most in U.S. history. The American Red Cross said Jan. 7 it was experiencing the lowest number of blood donors in two decades. Only about 3% of the eligible U.S. population donates blood, according to Abbott. 

Meanwhile, someone in the country needs blood every two seconds. It’s crucial for traumatic injuries, chronic illness and cancer patients — a single blood donation can save up to three lives. Because red blood cells have a 42-day shelf life, it’s always in demand. 

“There’s always a blood shortage,” Carterson said. “We go through cyclic periods of needing more donors, and this was a way for us to address the overall need for blood.”

The Tribune asked nine of some of the largest hospitals in Illinois if they have felt the effects of the ongoing blood shortage. All said they are at working levels, but many still have below optimal supply, particularly of O-negative red blood cells. 

The fact that the impact on most hospitals is minimal speaks to suppliers’ ability to effectively distribute the blood, said Amy Smith, area vice president of Versiti Blood Center.

“We prioritize where that blood is needed, and make sure that every patient that’s in immediate need gets that blood,” Smith said. 

The shortage was particularly exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people were less inclined to donate. Events that target first-time donors, such as blood drives at schools, were also canceled.

“It’s important, because blood is perishable and can’t be stockpiled, that people continuously give,” said Joy Squier, a spokesperson for the Illinois Red Cross. 

It’s added to the growing problem of blood donors aging out. Over the last decade, blood centers have lost about 30% of donors under the age of 30, according to Abbott. 

“We can’t keep doing the same thing in recruiting blood donors and expecting a different result,” Smith said. “We need to come up with innovative ways for a great customer experience.”

Abbott’s mixed reality technology could incentivize more donors, particularly younger donors, Carterson said. A recent surveyed nearly 300 donors after using the headsets — 89.2% said they would be likely to donate again. Of those who reported pre-donation anxiety, 68.4% reported that their stress decreased. 

It’s key that the headset is mixed reality, not virtual — donors still are aware of their surroundings, and staff can monitor them. 

“The feedback that we’ve gotten has been universally really positive,” Carterson said. 

It’s still unclear if, and how fast the headsets could be implemented across more blood centers nationwide. Currently, they’re available at several blood donation sites in Illinois, New York, Texas and Ohio. 

“We would like it to become available as widely as possible,” Carterson said. “Everybody needs blood at some point. We want to make sure that we have a safe, sustainable supply.”

Burt Blanchard, a Forest Park resident, started donating blood after he broke his neck in a car accident. He spent a month in a hospital, and blood donations saved his life, he said. The 57-year-old now makes it a habit to donate. 

He looked around curiously after a headset was fitted on him Tuesday. For several minutes, he described images of vibrant flowers playing through his glasses. 

“I just think about others in need,” Blanchard said. “But this is a fun thing on top of it.”

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