Taking It to the Bank

Blood donation illustration

Lauren Rolandini, RN, lays back in a donation chair while Sarah Cooper, a Richmond Rescue AEMT, inserts a needle into her arm with the skill and ease of someone who has done it a thousand times. The two share a quick smile behind their masks as Rolandini squeezes a foam ball in her fist, her blood filling up a blood donation bag beside her. Rolandini, the Regional Transport Center Manager at The University of Vermont Medical Center, rolled up her sleeve as an unprecedented blood shortage has hit our region.

“In January 2022 our blood inventories reached their lowest in more than a decade resulting in the first ever Red Cross blood crisis,” according to the American Red Cross. Fueled by COVID-19 and related staffing challenges, severe winter weather, global supply chain issues and the holiday season, the country’s blood supply faced a perfect storm. More than 600 blood drives were canceled which meant nearly 20,000 blood and platelet donations went uncollected.

Sarah Harm, MD, Medical Director of the Blood Bank at UVM Medical Center describes when the hospital didn’t have “anything on the shelf,” meaning whatever blood supplies they could get were put into immediate use. As Vermont’s only Level 1 trauma center, UVM Medical Center aims to have at least 5 to 7 days of blood supply on hand, but shortages cut that supply to just a few days.

Fortunately, the American Red Cross works hard to make sure that never happens by serving as the primary blood donation source for hospitals across the U.S., but they are not immune to the toll that COVID-19 has taken on both staff and, in this case, blood donors.

“We always had adequate supply from the Red Cross, but we really had to be conscious about conserving,” Dr. Harm says. This situation was happening at hospitals across the region. “This could have truly been a medical emergency for the State of Vermont.”

Setting Up a Blood Donation Program

The State of Vermont and the University of Vermont Health Network started looking for ways to help.

We saw a critical need for blood to help our hospitals operate safety, and we made it happen,” says Jennifer Morrison, Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

Morrison knew first hand just how important access to blood products can be. When her husband was diagnosed with cancer, he relied on blood products during his treatment. Morrison knew how horrible it could be if those supplies ran out.

UVM Medical Center provider working at blood bank in Burlington, Vermont.

One major obstacle: Setting up a blood donation program. Starting from scratch isn’t easy, or quick. It requires lengthy U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals that could take a year or more to certify. Fortunately, UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, NY had a solution. For decades, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital has maintained one of the few hospital-based blood donor programs in the country. Leveraging that program, the state activated its Medical Reserve Corps with additional staffing from local EMS teams who received phlebotomy training in Plattsburgh. Within two weeks, an emergency blood donation program was up and running at UVM Medical Center, drawing only on hospital and state employees to serve as blood donors to avoid pulling any potential donors away from existing Red Cross drives.

“We are trained in a pretty broad scope of roles, so it makes sense that we could be tapped for something like this,” says Michael Chiarella, Director of Operations for Richmond Rescue, a non-profit providing 911 ambulance service to Richmond, Bolton, Huntington, Hinesburg, southern Jericho, St. George and northern Starksboro.

All told, 10 staff members from Richmond Rescue worked a combined 345 hours in 12 days. Combined with Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital’s donor program staff and with support from UVM Medical Center, they collected 210 pints of blood offered to any Vermont hospital in need, with any surplus sent to Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital.

“What is unique here, is that all that blood stayed local,” says Tania Hong, VP of Clinical Lab Operations for the UVM Health Network. Hong points out that this isn’t the first time the state and the UVM Health Network have collaborated on large public health projects.

“We’ve worked together tirelessly since this pandemic started,” she says. “We are all in this job for more than just a pay check, we are in it for our patients and our communities.”

In addition to hospital staff rolling up their sleeves, the Red Cross has seen the public answer their call for more donations in recent weeks, which has helped restock hospitals, but the blood supply still remains vulnerable.

In Vermont, 80 pints of whole blood need to be collected every day to meet patient demand, according to the Red Cross. That means 560 different Vermonters must roll up a sleeve each week. Donated blood has a limited shelf life that must be continuously replenished.

To help ensure blood is available when it’s needed most, visit RedCrossBlood.org to make an appointment to give. Your one donation can help save more than one life.

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