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Blood donations still in high demand

The U.S. military always needs blood in war zones
and now, more than ever, it is depending on troops
at stateside bases to donate.


by Capt. Eric Badger
379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

10/13/2005 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) --
The U.S. military always needs blood in war zones
and now, more than ever, it is depending on troops
at stateside bases to donate.

That is because troops that deploy “down range”
cannot donate blood for one year after they return
home, said Maj. Julie Zwies, officer in charge of the
Expeditionary Blood Transshipment Center here.

Maj. David Lincoln, a Joint Blood Program officer
at the base, said donations must continue.

“Every time you give, you could be saving the life of
a fellow Airman, Soldier, Marine, Sailor or coalition
partner. Every donation counts,” said Major Lincoln,
deployed here from Elmendorf Air Force
Base, Alaska.

The transshipment center is the hub for all blood distributed to medical units throughout the region. Major Zwies, also the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group’s support flight commander, said blood comes from donors at military bases throughout the United States.

Before shipping to forward bases, members of the Armed Services Whole Blood Processing Laboratory-East -- at McGuire AFB, N.J. -- first process the blood. Then C-17 Globemaster III or commercial cargo aircraft transport it here.

The center then distributes it each week to all the forward-deployed locations throughout the Southwest Asia theater. The amount of blood each location receives varies each week, depending on need.

“We can get blood processed and loaded on a jet and on its way in two and a half to three hours,” Major Lincoln, said. “Much like a traffic cop, I ensure Major Zwies has the right of way as she gets the blood to where it’s needed most.”

To prepare the life-saving fluid for the trip, Airmen pack the blood in standard blood shipping boxes, known as a Collins boxes. The boxes also hold about 14 pounds of ice.

“Red blood cells can’t be frozen, so wet ice is used to keep it cold during shipment,” said Major Zwies, deployed from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. “However, fresh frozen plasma and cryoprecipitate are preserved frozen and shipped with dry ice to keep it frozen. Blood is an officially licensed pharmaceutical product and is handled with extreme care.”

Due to the unpredictability of the need for blood, transportation into the theater is on a case-by-case basis.
“We use aircraft of opportunity,” Major Lincoln said. “We send blood by C-130s, Chinooks (helicopters), ships or convoys. Any way we can get it there -- we make sure it happens. Lives depend on it.”

Major Lincoln said the Air Force handles the strategic airlift portion. The Army takes care of ground shipments.

“The Army is a big player in this process,” he said. “They have special laboratory technicians who do nothing but ensure blood is properly distributed where it needs to go. They do an outstanding job, day in and day out.”

The center stores red blood cells, fresh frozen plasma and cryoprecipitate. When first drawn from a donor, whole blood contains each of these elements. To separate the elements, the blood goes through a process called centrifugation. The centrifuge spins the blood, which separates the elements.

Depending on the need, a patient may only require one of the elements. For example, cryoprecipitate is primarily for patients with blood-clotting difficulties.

“The blood arrives to us already split into these separate elements,” Major Zwies said. “We track it, pack it and send it off as fast as we can to wherever our forces and coalition partners need it.”

To ensure the center’s operation runs smoothly takes a group of people from varied backgrounds, she said.

“We are truly diverse,” she said. “Our team is made up of logisticians, administrative assistants and laboratory technicians. All come together for the process to work. It is definitely a team effort.”

The center stores the red blood cell units in a walk-in refrigerator kept at approximately 1 to 6 degrees Celsius. There are also three large chest freezers that hold plasma and cryoprecipitate. The temperature in the chest freezers is at a constant negative 70 degrees Celsius.

Before shipment to bases in the theater, the center scans and logs each blood into its computer database. This is much like items scanned by a cashier at a local grocery store, Major Zwies said. This provides a tracking system for the blood to ensure it arrives to its correct destination, while maintaining the center’s inventory accountability.

The need for blood will continue to grow with each passing year, as the pool of military donors shrinks, the major said.

“Many deployed members will be ineligible to donate for up to a year upon return from their deployment,” she said. “Many people think the next person will donate, so they don’t worry about it. What we want people to remember is that everybody needs blood. The need will never end.”

That is a big reason military donors stationed at continental U.S. bases must now give more than ever, Major Lincoln said.

“This is about military helping military,” he said.