Armed Services Blood Program donors keep the world beating

The ABSP celebrates blood donors worldwide for World Blood Donor Day, June 14 (Courtesy of ASBP).
The ABSP celebrates blood donors worldwide for World Blood Donor Day, June 14 (Courtesy of ASBP).

Armed Services Blood Program donors keep the world beating

by Claudia Sanchez-Bustamante
MHS Communications

World Blood Donor Day is celebrated every June 14 to raise awareness about the need for safe blood and blood products and to thank blood donors for their voluntary, lifesaving gifts.

As the official military provider of blood products to the U.S. armed forces and military community, the Armed Services Blood Program honors donors who help ensure mission readiness.

"Outside of the blood industry and medical world, blood is not generally thought of until it's not there or needed," said Army Col. Audra Taylor, ASBP's division chief. "It would not be possible for for ASBP to fulfill its mission if not for our donors – they’re the heart of our program."

That mission involves providing quality blood products and services for military health care operations worldwide in both peace and war. Doing so requires the ASBP, a Defense Health Agency joint service operation, to -- collect, process, store, distribute, and transfuse blood and products to ill or injured service members, their families, retirees, and veterans around the world.

"We focus on equipping the war fighter with the lifesaving blood and blood products they need on the battlefield as well as in military medical treatment facilities (MTF) worldwide," added Taylor.

For Army Lt. Col. Jason Corley, director of the Army Blood Program, blood is all about a ready medical force, one of the DHA's missions.

"Medical providers must have blood on-hand in case it's needed for casualty resuscitation," he said. "Providers and deployed medical forces are not considered capable if they don't have their required blood inventory."

Additionally, "ensuring a ready medical force requires thinking of all the things it takes to stand ready in supply, in capability, and in emergencies," said Taylor.

As such, ensuring MTFs have immediate and easy access to safe and viable blood and blood products globally is vital.

"Blood is a critical resource needed for successful combat casualty care," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Erica Nance, ASBP's branch chief of Global Health Engagement. "The Department of Defense has a global presence, and military medicine is present where our U.S. forces operate."

She explained the ASBP collaborates with other organizations that collectively develop strategies to improve blood safety and increase access to safe blood products. In addition, "there are ASBP Joint Blood Program Officers within each DOD Combatant Command, who also play an essential role in building partnerships with militaries around the global to support the blood mission," she said.

Getting Blood to Recipients

To guarantee the blood's quality and viability, the ASBP must ensure it gets to recipients within tight timeframes.

"From date of collection, units are processed - including testing - and ready for shipment within 96 hours," said Corley. "Upon shipment from the blood donor center within that window, the blood could arrive at a garrison MTF within the continental United States and in-patient inventory the next day."

Shipping blood to overseas MTFs, such as Joint Task Force Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; or the Multinational Observer Force at the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, for example, can take between 6-10 days to arrive in theater and extra days for onward shipment to forward-deployed forces, said Corley.

"Research studies have shown that one of the most important factors in saving the life of a bleeding patient is early use of blood," said Corley. "For example, work by Joint Trauma System has shown that blood transfusion should be initiated within 30 minutes of injury to have the greatest impact on patient outcome. This means we need safe and efficacious products readily available to get to our forces as far forward on the battlefield as possible."

Added Nance: "The evolution of military medicine has yielded the highest combat survival rate in history due to the forward surgical capabilities and rapid evacuation of capabilities."

Blood Products

According to ASBP Communications, blood donations are based on the four main components of blood itself: red blood cells, platelets, plasma and white blood cells, and transfusable components derived.

Below, is an explanation of each type of donation and product:

  • Whole blood donation, or all the blood components, is what most people are familiar with and considered a "typical" blood donation product. It is frequently given to trauma patients, children, and adults fighting cancer, blood disorders, traumatic injuries, and to people undergoing surgery.
  • Red blood cell donation is the collection of just red blood cells using a process called apheresis. This automated technology allows donors to give twice the amount of their red cells through an apheresis machine than with just a normal whole blood donation. One of the most common uses of red blood cells is for trauma patients and emergency transfusions during birth, people with sickle cell anemia, and anyone suffering blood loss.
  • Platelet donation is also done by apheresis. Platelets are tiny cells in our blood that form clots to stop bleeding. An apheresis machine collects your platelets and returns remaining blood products safely and comfortably back to the donor. A single donation of platelets can yield several transfusion units, whereas it takes about five whole blood donations to make up a single platelet transfusion unit. Platelets are most often designated to cancer patients, organ transplant procedures, anemia, and other blood disorders.
  • Plasma donation is also collected using the same apheresis process as platelets and red cells. It separates plasma from blood and safely and comfortably returns these other blood components to the donor. Plasma has clotting factors that stop patients from bleeding. Trauma patients, burn patients, and transplant patients are often recipients of plasma. During COVID-19, convalescent plasma was collected to help provide research components and treatment to those with the disease.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

ASBP Communications explained the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the ASBP's collection efforts while the need for blood continued. The safety restrictions and protective measures established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made scheduling blood drives and collecting blood difficult.

"Donors stayed home," said Corley. "Unit commanders cancelled blood drives to prevent COVID-19 spread."

But within a month, the ASBP pivoted to continue its mission. It established protective COVID-19 measures following Food and Drug Administration guidelines and mirroring American Association of Blood Banks recommendations, said Corley.

"Via marketing, communications, and command channels, ASBP promoted the need for blood and urged donors to come out and donate," he said. "Gradually, we weathered the storm of initial closures and shutdowns and were able to continue in our collection goals and welcome back donors."

"A safe and viable blood supply continued for our service members, their families, and retirees throughout the pandemic," added Taylor.

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