Did you know there are potentially millions of healthy Americans who are banned from giving blood? Two Central Florida nursing students are now fighting to change that nationwide ban.
"If I need a blood transfusion and I don't get one, I could possibly die," Emmy Derisbrun said of her life-long struggle with sickle cell anemia. "[Blood tranfusions] are vital to my recovery."
Sickle cell disease is part of the reason Derisbrun studies to be a nurse at Seminole State College, alongside her friend Blake Lynch. Not long ago, Lynch tried to donate blood, which could have helped Derisbrun.
"It was a little embarrassing, because I go and [try to] give blood, and they said, 'No, you're gay. We're sorry; we don't want your blood.' It assumes that I'm HIV positive, and that's not true," Lynch said.
That thought disturbed Derisbrun.
"I could possibly die because there isn't any blood, but there's completely healthy blood out there that's being turned away?" she said.
Derisbrun is referring to a three-decade-old ban by the Food and Drug Administration that prevents blood banks from accepting donations from any man who has had sex with another man. The FDA says it's because those men have "high risks for exposure to transfusion transmissible infections," specifically HIV.
"Back in the 1970s, it was assumed that all gay men have HIV," Lynch explained. "That's not the case anymore."
Added Derisbrun: "Let's not forget about our technology. Any blood is being tested. The blood that's being given to me is tested. So, HIV is not a homosexual's disease, a gay man's disease, HIV can happen to anybody," she said. "And if their technology is not so good, I guess no one can donate blood?"
But many people can donate blood because of the extensive testing that happens at banks such as Florida's Blood Centers.
"Every unit of blood, every donation is tested for about a dozen different diseases," said Pat Michaels, a spokesman for Florida's Blood Centers.
The American Red Cross calls the FDA's ban "unwarranted," adding, "The American Red Cross is disappointed that the FDA has not chosen to make changes, and continues... to press for donor deferral policies that are fair, consistent and based on scientific evidence."
"If you were really in the hospital and you needed a blood transfusion, I think the last thing you're going to ask is, 'Is that gay men's blood? I don't want that blood,' " he said. "You're not going to refuse the blood. Blood is blood -- especially after all the blood has been screened and tested," Lynch said.
That's why Lynch started Banned 4 Life, a movement collecting support with almost 2,000 signatures on a petition to overturn the FDA ban, allowing potentially millions more people to donate. Some estimates put the population of gay men in Florida at almost a half a million -- and that potential source could have a major impact on donor blood supply.
"We're always looking at the options to change the deferral policy set by the FDA," Michaels said. "Given the fact that if [the FDA ban] changes, it would certainly open up the opportunity for more people to donate," he said.
"Let's not forget that lesbians are allowed to donate blood," Derisbrun added.
"I don't mind. I don't care if it's gay blood, lesbian blood, black blood, white. Healthy blood is healthy blood. And if it's going to save my life, the last thing I'm going to ask is, 'Can you tell me if this was from a gay man?' It makes no sense."
Banned 4Life was launched a few weeks ago, and since then, the FDA has pulled its web page explaining the ban on donations from gay men, saying the page is "unavailable." The FDA did send FOX 35 an email saying that they will "continue to re-evaluate donor deferral policies."