Overcoming the logistical problems of getting blood to critically wounded war fighters in a combat zone is often a major factor in saving their lives. When blood is donated in the United States, it’s divided into red blood cells, plasma and platelets and refrigerated until needed.
Then, if someone is need of a substantial amount, the red blood cells, plasma and platelets are reconstituted. This takes time and expertise, plus the process of separating and reconstituting blood can lessen its effectiveness. Not an ideal situation for lifesaving in a combat zone where platelets—important for forming clots—can run low because of their short shelf lives. Simply keeping adequate supplies of all blood types and being able to reconstitute them quickly is difficult.
The Walking Blood Bank (WBB)—where war fighters volunteer to give blood—is one solution to these problems. Qualified donors are identified and screened for infectious diseases every 90 days so that when their blood type is needed they can quickly donate their fresh blood for a specific patient without the delays of reconstituting blood parts. This fresh whole blood, with its clotting platelets that haven’t been processed, stored or frozen, also has better oxygen-carrying and clotting capability, which could be the difference in saving the patient’s life or a limb.
When blood is needed quickly in large amounts, or rare types are needed—AB negative is found in less than 1 percent of the population—the call goes out for the prescreened soldiers in the Walking Blood Bank. The volunteers are processed, then their blood is drawn and quickly taken to the operating room and transfused into the patient.
“I was working with the 31st Combat Support Hospital, stationed at Camp Dwyer in Helmand province, Afghanistan,” Army Medic Sergeant Kameren Kelly said of his last deployment, which ended in January 2011. “I worked in the emergency room and have seen, participated in and helped run the Walking Blood Bank.
“There were many soldiers whose lives were saved due to the WBB. The injuries we saw were some of the worst in theater,” he added. “There were many times I can remember where the casualty would not have survived if the WBB had not been activated.”
Kelly, now deployed to Afghanistan’s Camp Nathan Smith, said the WBB usually worked like any other blood drive. A monthly message went out calling for donations regardless of type. Rare types were noted and they could opt to be added to a roster to be called on in an emergency. When a casualty presented with a rare blood type the donors on the roster were called.
“They would show up within minutes,” he said. “We would have medics, lab techs and other personnel waiting to transfer whole blood directly out of the donors and into the emergency room or operating room for a whole blood transfusion.”
Kelly said some wounded troops have required up to 12 units of blood during surgery.
Starting in World War II, before the Walking Blood Bank, when patients needed a lot of blood quickly, often warm sterile salt water was infused.
Experience, however, has proven that replacing lost blood with whole warm blood leads to higher survival rates, said Air Force Colonel Richard H. McBride, director of the Armed Services Blood Program.
“Blood collections in theater [the Walking Blood Bank] have saved countless lives and are fully supported by the Department of Defense,” he added.
Michael H. O'Shea is a writer and a member of the USO Board of Governors.