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Drawing blood, giving back life: techs support medical readiness

Image of Military health personnel wearing a mask drawing blood from military personnel wearing a mask. William Graham, a retired U.S. Army Soldier, looks away as Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Komlanvi Atsu, an Armed Services Blood Program phlebotomist, draws his blood during the ASBP blood drive at the United Service Organizations center in Grafenwoehr, Germany, on Feb. 2. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Joseph McDonald)

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The Armed Services Blood Program is the military's only blood donor program for service members, their families, retirees, veterans, and local communities worldwide, helping those in critical need. Both whole blood and COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma from those who have recovered from COVID-19 remain in high demand. All 21 donor centers adhere to CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

There's an art, a science, a system, and a network to the military's collection, storage, and dissemination of life-saving blood products. Behind it all, though, are human hands drawing red blood cells, plasma, and platelets from willing human arms.

"I feel like there can always be more of us," said Angelica Kuper, a civilian phlebotomist and an apheresis lead technician at the Fort Bliss Blood Donor Center, part of the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. "Especially right now that we have so many different kinds of projects going on with COVID-19 convalescent plasma, and platelets ... we can always use more help."

Kuper was referring to the many workers like her, civilian and military, who are on the front lines of the Military Health System's global blood distribution grid. Her specialty, apheresis, is the procedure that removes whole blood from a donor or patient and separates it into individual components (such a platelets or plasma). The remaining components are then put back into the bloodstream of the donor.

Phlebotomists draw blood for tests, perform blood transfusions, conduct research, and run or assist with blood donations.

"We all work toward the same mission," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Michelle Longoria-Fisher, a medical laboratory technician at the Armed Services Blood Bank Center (ASBBC) at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

The center is part of the 59th Medical Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron and is a sort of large clearinghouse for blood products. Longoria-Fisher said she is part of a team of about 65 who draw blood; perform interviews of donors; test the blood; filter it; and ship it — east, west, and overseas. The ASBBC performs some 800 tests per day on blood for at least seven combatant commands.

She anticipates training as a phlebotomist in the future, but currently works in the "component room" of the donor center.

"I get the units that have been drawn, and I make them into the different components and then we ship them out to wherever they need to go," Longoria-Fisher said. "We'll get the whole blood and then we'll filter it [to eliminate white blood cells] and spin them down at high speeds to get the plasma and the red cells to separate. We'll get two units from that one donation."

In the component room with three civilians and five other techs in uniform, some are new to the job, like Longoria-Fisher, who arrived last August after volunteering for special duty there. A five-year veteran of the Air Force, she was previously stationed at Travis Air Force Base, California.

"Not a lot of lab techs get to experience donor center work," she said. "Previously I was working on the transfusion side of things, so it's great I get to see the making of units for those transfusions.

A group of military personnel wearing face mask standing around a machine
Army Sgt. Kevin Hughes provides instruction during the 95th Medical Detachment-Blood Support’s training on apheresis platelet collection In December 2020 at Camp Humphreys, South Korea. (U.S. Army photo by C.J. Lovelace)

Blood flow

There seems to be a constant need for all blood products. But from Kuper's standpoint, there is a particular urgency for platelets. The Fort Bliss Center is the sole provider to the medical center, and they need to provide at least one platelet donation every day. If they come up short, the hospital must buy platelets from the civilian sector.

"The thing with platelets is they are only good for five days," she said. "We need a continuous amount of donors coming through the door."

Regular blood donation quotas are constant, too, especially with war fighters still downrange. For those unfamiliar with the blood-giving process, Kuper said it's easy for walk-ins. She'll get your demographic information, you'll answer a questionnaire, give your health history, have your vitals taken (blood pressure, temperature, etc.), and then be shown to a comfortable table for the painless draw. Regular whole blood-giving takes no more than 40 minutes. Plasma donations can take up to an hour and a half, Kuper said, and giving platelets could take up to two hours.

Both Kuper and Longoria-Fisher have observed the same thing over the past year as have many others at blood banks across the country, military or civilian: donations are down due to the impacts of COVID-19.

"Typically, I get about 30 collections per day, so honestly it's been a little bit of a struggle lately," Longoria-Fisher said. "Not a lot of people want to come in to donate...but we have a lot of regulations in place. We try to keep it as safe as possible for the donors."

The ASBBC regularly ships blood products to fulfill quotas for the Armed Services Whole Blood Processing Laboratory on both coasts in the United States, and targets units downrange, overseas, too.

On Saturdays, traffic is heavy but happy, she said, because the Blood Bank Center works with the commanders at Joint Base San Antonio's Basic Military Training unit. There, recruits are often only too pleased to take a break from the rigors of daily boot camp to listen to music, get a snack, and give blood. Longoria-Fisher says they get up to 200 donations some weeks.

"It can get crazy," she said with a laugh, adding that she enjoys her work and would eventually like to get a bachelor's degree in laboratory science.

Kuper, for her part, is proud of the life-saving work she does with platelets and with COVID-19 convalescent plasma, which comes from recovered COVID-19 patients whose anti-body levels are at a certain level mandated by FDA.

Check out the ASBP website, to learn about how to donate.

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