The doors to the trauma center fly open as military doctors and nurses fill the room. Their newest patient, a young Airman who just got medevac’d from injuries sustained by a horrific car accident. He is losing a lot of blood and doctors work to stabilize his life as they call for a red blood cell transfusion. The entire trauma center stops as they realize that they don’t have enough blood products available to help save this Airman’s life.
Though this Airman’s story may be fictional, the reality of not having blood or blood products on hand can be very real. With National Blood Donor month coming to a close, the Armed Services Blood Program distribution system ensures that these life-saving products are always available for service members around the world.
“The donation process starts long before an Airman is stuck with a needle,” said 1st Lt. Cherie Wyatt, deputy director of the Armed Services Blood Bank Command in Bethesda, Md.
Wyatt explained that the first step is the registration process and questionnaire. The donor prospect is screened for vitals, questions about their medical history are answered, as well as places they have lived or traveled. Finally, they receive a confidential interview, where they can speak to a certified technician and address any issues before agreeing to donate.
Qualified Airmen are then allowed to donate 450 ml of blood, Wyatt said. Later, test tubes of blood are screened for HIV, Hepatitis and other forms of infectious diseases. The entire donation process can last anywhere from between 30 to 45 minutes.
“The life of a unit of blood is 28 days,” Wyatt said. “But you can donate every 56 days, to allow your body to regenerate those red blood cells.”
The units of blood are then transported in temperature controlled coolers, back to the blood bank where majority of the testing is completed, Wyatt explained. Blood types are confirmed and the test tubes are sent out for further testing.
Once the test tube results return, a certified medical technician reviews all the information from each blood unit to ensure that the every step was properly completed, Wyatt said. If everything is according to standard, the blood is labeled and slated for final release. Before it is sent off, there is one final check to ensure if all the information has been entered into the database correctly.
“There are two sets of eyes on everything you do, on every step,” Wyatt said about the blood testing process.
Throughout the year, mobile donation units will hold blood drives at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, D.C.; Dover Air Force Base, Del.; Joint Base Andrews, Md. and other military installations and federal buildings in the area. Furthermore, the blood program also coordinates blood drives at the U.S Air Force Academy, Colo., and Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
“All of the service academies do the blood drive which is really important,” said Navy Chief Petty Officer John Newsome, senior enlisted leader for the Armed Services Blood Bank Center – Bethesda. “Not only does it give us the blood that we need, but it’s teaching the future leaders of the military that this is a program that needs to be supported in your command. Same thing with the new recruits. It’s getting them when they are fresh in the military and helping them understand what the blood program is and how important it is for the service members down range. The program supports the armed forces.”
While mobile donor units are working to collect blood donations, each blood bank center is in constant communication their Armed Services Whole Blood Processing Laboratory.
Each center has a certain quota of blood, dictated by the processing lab, based off their size, Newsome said. Blood is collected from each center and sent to a location on the East or West Coast where it can be scheduled for a military transport with minimal delay.
“One plane may have 600 units of blood, but we could be responsible for 45 of those units,” Newsome added. “It’s a pooling location … Blood collected on Monday could be in theater on Tuesday, because they arranged the flight already.”
The last step in the distribution process is for a patient to receive blood. However, before that occurs, a sample of their blood is sent to transfusion services, Wyatt explained. There they test the sample for antibodies, then try to match it with a donor unit. Before it is transfused, a sample of the new blood and the patients’ blood is mixed together to see if there are any reactions.
“Once you have determined if that blood is compatible, then you can release that unit that could be used for that patient,” Wyatt said. “A transfusion is not something to be taken lightly… If we make a mistake we can kill somebody. So it is very critical that the job is done correctly. Within minutes, they are receiving lifesaving blood products.”
The blood program not only helps to save lives, but helps save money. According to Wyatt blood products from outside sources can cost anywhere from $500 to $1000 dollars.
“You can buy blood, but you can’t buy someone’s donation,” Wyatt said about the importance of donations.
Newsome added that the while the blood program is self-sufficient, there are times when they would need specific blood type with specific antibodies and have to purchase it from another agency, like the Red Cross, which makes it more important to have a large pool of available donors.
“If we’re not going to take care of our own, who will?” Newsome said. “Donating blood is a service you can do for every Airman, Soldier, Marine and Sailor and their family members.”