From Donor to Distribution: A trip through the blood lab
The request arrives from a local Kaiser Permanente hospital just before lunch: a patient needs platelets STAT! “Stat” means immediately; if you watch hospital dramas, you might already know that. But this is no fictional TV show, it’s a real assignment for Nataly Breisath, a Hospital Services Tech in the American Red Cross blood lab in San José.
Nataly grabs a clear bag of the yellowish platelets from the agitator – a machine whose shelves slide back and forth constantly to keep the platelets full of oxygen. She packs the bag into a box bearing the Red Cross logo and marked “Rush: Keep at Room Temperature.” It will be driven to the hospital immediately.
Although the order form doesn’t say who the patient is or why they need platelets, that component of blood can be essential to surviving surgeries, fighting cancer, chronic diseases and traumatic injuries.
Is it stressful for Nataly fulfilling orders for blood products from local hospitals?
“There is usually some amount of pressure (and a little anxiety),” she says. “Even more so with stat orders.”
The most challenging ones are when orders for a massive transfusion protocol come into the lab – when a patient needs approximately 10 units of blood within 24 hours – which is roughly equivalent to the volume of blood in an average adult. It can be tough hearing details later on the news about a tragedy and figuring out that is what led to the transfusion. But Nataly says she is glad she can “possibly save their life and help with recovery.”
Although Nataly doesn’t meet the patients who receive the blood she prepares at the lab, she does know someone personally whose life was saved by blood donations, someone who had a “significant need after giving birth.” So Nataly knows for sure that giving blood saves lives.
Before blood can get to a hospital patient from a Red Cross lab it needs to undergo many steps:
- The donation: People go to a donation center to give blood.
- Processing: After giving blood at a local drive, it is packed on ice and taken to a blood manufacturing laboratory where it can be separated it into transfusable components, such as red blood cells, platelets and plasma.
- Testing: As the donation is processed, test tubes with blood samples that were taken at the time of donation go to a testing laboratory where a dozen tests are performed to determine the donor’s blood type and check for infectious diseases. These results are transferred to the processing center. If any diseases are found, the donor will be notified and the blood is discarded.
- Storage: Once testing is complete, the processed donation will be labelled and stored. Red cells are stored in special refrigerators for up to 42 days; platelets are stored at room temperature for up to five days while being continuously agitated to prevent them from clumping together; and plasma can be stored in freezers for up to one year.
- Distribution: Hospitals keep some blood products on their shelves, but the Red Cross is on standby to replenish those supplies and respond in case of an emergency.
Learn more about the blood donation journey: https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/what-happens-to-donated-blood.html
Story, reporting and photos by Alex Keilty