Lab serves as conduit between service member blood donors and fellow warfighters

By Randy Roughton

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Tech. Sgt. Ursula Widener places stickers confirming the multiple verifications of fresh blood being processed at ASWBPL-East as it's prepared for shipping to Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

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When service members donate blood, beginning as early as basic training, the blood is often sent to one of two Armed Services Whole Blood Processing laboratories and can get to Southwest Asia in less than a week.

Blood donated at more than 20 Air Force, Army and Navy blood donor centers nationwide is sent to the Armed Services Whole Blood Processing Laboratory East at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., or its sister lab at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and ultimately to Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marines when they need it.

“They say when you go to war, you need three B’s: bombs, bullets and beans. You also need blood,” said Maj. Jerome Vinluan, ASWBPL-East director. “Typically, they don’t start any type of activity if those four things aren’t in place. Before any hostilities start, all of the medical assets need to be in place. Blood is definitely a critical medical asset.”

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Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Kristin Bovaird and Tech. Sgt. Ursula Widener, both laboratory technicians, verify incoming frozen blood units at the ASWBL-East facility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Service members wounded in action have a considerably better chance of recovery than in previous wars, with a 98 percent survival rate when blood is available in the medical treatment facility, Vinluan said.

Earlier this year, a military working dog handler from the 87th Security Forces Squadron at JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst credited the availability of blood and on-scene medical care with saving his life after an improvised explosive device took his left leg in southern Afghanistan.

“The intervention of the blood played a big role in saving his life,” Vinluan said. “When people are injured or in trauma, it is vital to prevent or treat shock, and it is the transfused blood products that essentially saves their lives.”

The center is manned by Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and civilians, and has been a joint operation since the Department of Defense created the mission for the Armed Services Blood Program in 1966. Blood handling practices today are considerably more advanced than in previous years when products were stored in jars and lab technicians didn’t wear protective gloves, especially with the laboratory subject to stringent regulatory inspections by the Food and Drug Administration, American Association of Blood Banks, College of American Pathologists and the Air Force Inspector General.

“Without the blood supply, successful life-saving efforts wouldn’t be a reality.” — Tech. Sgt. Shane Sayer

Technological advances in recent years have contributed to a streamlined process of getting blood to the field more quickly. The average age of blood was 18 days about five years ago; today, it’s less than seven days.

“It’s been scientifically shown that the fresher the blood, the better the recovery rate,” Vinluan said.

Ensuring a high recovery rate requires an expeditious process. It starts early on, with the blood arriving at the processing lab from the donor centers about three days after donation, usually by an overnight delivery truck. Laboratory technicians like Tech. Sgt. Ursula Widener then scan and test the blood to ensure it’s properly labeled and stored at adequate temperatures.

“After that, we put them into our inventory, and they’re ready to go to Southwest Asia or other contingencies around the world,” Widener said. “It’s really rewarding to know we’re the only people in the United States who send blood to the troops there and knowing that the lives saved are directly because of what we do. Any job can get monotonous sometimes, but we keep reminding ourselves that the work we’re doing is saving lives.”

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A blood laboratory technician loads a blood and saline mix into a testing tray before it’s spun in a centrifuge to show positive type of blood units. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Laboratory technicians then pack the blood on a pallet to be shipped on a contracted aircraft for a 14-hour flight to Southwest Asia, making only one stop for refueling at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. From there, the blood is sent to different medical facilities in the Southwest Asian theatre.

Although they will never know the full impact of their work on the lives of both service members and civilian noncombatants, they have heard back from a number of the blood’s beneficiaries, like the security forces member.

When the blood bank at Joint Base Balad was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and lost its entire blood inventory during the war in Iraq, the lab helped replenish the supply back to almost 500 blood products within 48 hours.

Even though they don’t hear of each life their work saves, the joint staff is aware of the importance of their work. They know that 99 percent accuracy means people still die, so anything less than perfection in blood testing isn’t acceptable.

“We’re here in the states and not in harm’s way, but we are still contributing directly to the saves the medics have over there,” said the laboratory’s quality assurance manager, Tech. Sgt. Shane Sayer. “Without the blood supply, successful life-saving efforts wouldn’t be a reality. Additionally, we’re the last safety point before the blood is transfused. It’s an honor to be here in this position, simply knowing the impact we have on our warfighters’ lives.”

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