How the Red Cross Manages America’s Blood Supply

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by Gordon Williams

Pictures by Gordon Williams

The Red Cross relies on many skills in carrying out its mission:  disaster responders and first aid teachers, mass care workers and water safety instructors. But did you know that in fulfilling one critical element of its mission, the Red Cross  relies on trained medical technicians known as phlebologists?The Red Cross supplies blood to 2,600 hospitals around the United States and it is phlebologists who collect that blood. It takes a massive effort to keep all that blood flowing–now especially when blood is needed urgently in Texas to help victims of Hurricane Harvey.

 

“Every day, the Red Cross must collect nearly 14,000 blood donations needed for patients–700 blood donations in just the Pacific Northwest Blood Services Region,” says Natividad Lewis, external communication manager for the region, which includes both Washington and Oregon.

To learn first-hand how the process works, I spent time recently with a team collecting blood at the Kitsap Mall in Silverdale, Washington–in the region’s Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas Chapter.

On any given day,  more than a dozen mobile blood collection teams will be at work around the region. Teams run from four to 10 members, depending on the expected turn out. The Kitsap Mall team has four members–Tiela Green, Gaby Hunt, Alice Mitchem and Doug Brown. All are based in Vancouver, Washington and all were trained as certified medical assistants by the Red Cross. Before the year ends, the team will have worked more than 200 blood drives.

The Red Cross says that 6.8 million Americans donate blood each year. The process of giving blood is pretty straight forward. On this day, donors sign in and are directed to the mobile blood collection bus, in the mall parking lot.

Once in the bus, Green explains, donors complete a health history questionnaire and are given a mini-physical to check their temperature, pulse, blood pressure and hemoglobin levels. Once the blood is collected–around one pint, plus a few small test tubes– donors rest for a bit and are offered liquids and snacks. Most walk out within a few minutes. Doug Brown finished taking blood from donor Brooke Waidley only minutes ago, but already Waidley says she feels fine and is ready to leave..  

 

Once the blood is collected, it is stored in iced containers until it can be processed and tested to establish the blood type and to check for infectious diseases. In the processing stage, the blood is spun in centrifuges to separate out such components of whole blood as red blood cells, platelets and plasma. Each component has its own use in medicine: whole blood for trauma and surgical patients, for instance and platelets for cancer treatment and organ transplants.

Red cells can be stored under refrigeration for up to 42 days and whole blood for up to 35 days. Platelets are stored at room temperature in agitators for up to five days. Plasma is frozen and stored in freezers for up to a year.

Not all the blood the Red Cross collects comes from these mobile units. There are also fixed blood donation sites around the region: In Richland, Vancouver and Yakima, Washington and Bend, Klamath Falls, Medford, Roseburg and Salem, Oregon.

To learn more about donating blood and to schedule an appointment, use the Red Cross Blood Donor App; visit redcrossblood.org;  or call 1-800-Red Cross (1-800-733-2767). The app is available from the Apple Store and Google Play or by texting BLOODAPP at 90999.

There are a few rules about who can–or can’t–donate blood. You must be at least 17 and weigh at least 110 pounds. You must be in general good health and feeling well.  As a general rule, you can donate whole blood once every 56 days.

Someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds, so the flow to hospitals can’t be interrupted. Prepositioning blood products is a standard preparedness measure for events that could threaten deliveries. Most recently that included the massive traffic jams that built up around the country in connection with the August 21 total solar eclipse.   On the eve of the eclipse, Lewis could say, with confidence, “Rest assured, the Red Cross will maintain its blood service operations and supply of blood products to partner hospitals.”  

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