ASBP: Cavalry to the Rescue
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Cavalry to the Rescue

By Doreen Rekoski, ASBP blood donor recruiter, NMC San Diego, Cali.
Navy Hospitalman 3rd Class James Abbe holds up a bag of platelets while GMSN Alexis Banks donates platelets for the first time.
Navy Hospitalman 3rd Class James Abbe holds up a bag of platelets while GMSN Alexis Banks donates platelets for the first time.
Platelets. Picture them as the cavalry – men on white horses, galloping to the rescue. Or as the first responders on the scene.

Amazing, miniscule disk-shaped cells in the blood, platelets rush to the site of an injury to help the blood clot. Vital to the blood clotting process, once they arrive on the scene, they form a barrier to help the damaged organ or blood vessel stop bleeding and give the body a chance to heal. They are often called the “link to life” because they help those who are ill to hold onto life.

Navy Lt. Timothy Hopkins, division head of the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) Transfusion Services, says there is always a great need for a ready and steady supply of platelets on the shelves.

The pool of patients seen at NMCSD, Hopkins said, is diverse; ranging from neonates to geriatric, healthy servicemen and women and individuals with various forms of cancer, such as leukemia, multiple myeloma or other genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia.

“We have multiple patients that come in as frequent as every week to ones who sometimes come in by the month,” he said.

Hopkins said blood and blood products are critical to the health and survival of these patients. With treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, that can often destroy both cancer and healthy cells alike, these patients need transfusions to prevent bleeding or fight infection as they are unable to produce platelets.

“Their bodies are either attacking their own red blood cells/platelets or even are just failing to produce enough to sustain,” he said. “Receiving products here allows them to go home and enjoy life as much as they can and we welcome them back to us whenever they need further assistance.”

An ample supply of platelets is also essential for patients undergoing surgery. “Platelets support surgery in this facility regardless of their health status and although they may not be indicated for the procedure, if something goes awry they will be requested and expected in a moment's notice,” said Hopkins. “If they aren't on our shelves here, it can take anywhere from as little as 30-45 minutes or up to four hours to get from an outside provider.”

While it is possible to obtain platelets through whole blood donations, the best way is through a special kind of blood donation called apheresis. Many people know and understand the need for whole blood donations. However, even among those who regularly donate blood, there is not as high of an awareness about apheresis and its importance.

During the procedure for a platelet donation, called plateletpheresis, whole blood is withdrawn from a donor through an automated blood collection system. The donor center at NMCSD uses the Trima Collection System. Trima allows donors to safely provide combinations of red cells, platelets and plasma from a single donation. Like

whole blood, the process uses a sterile, single-use needle and tubing system. The automated system collects the most needed components and returns the remaining blood components back to the donor.

The entire plateletpheresis donation takes approximately two hours. This includes the donor’s health interview, approximately one hour and 20 minutes for the actual donation and time for refreshments. During the donation process, the donors are given the ‘red carpet’ treatment. They rest comfortably in a reclining bed where they can read a book, watch television or a video from the collection in the video library.

It takes six whole blood donations to provide a single platelet transfusion. One apheresis donation, however, provides enough platelets for one complete transfusion.

These machines are often able to get more than one unit of platelets from one donor which can then be reserved for just one patient. It is considered an ideal medical practice to have this ‘from one, to one’ as to decrease any reaction from multiple donor sources.

Since only one-tenth of the circulating platelets in a donor’s body are collected during the automated procedure, the body is able to quickly replenish its supply. Platelet donations can be made as frequently as every two weeks, but no more than 24 times in a calendar year.

Platelets have a very short shelf life of five to seven days so the need for donors is constant.

Ellyn Alcantara, NMCSD donor center nurse, said a minimum of four units needs to be collected almost daily throughout the week to keep enough inventory on the shelf.

“We appreciate those who make the commitment to give a few hours of their day to help save the life of a stranger,” she said.

At NMCSD donor center, apheresis donations are taken by appointment Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Call (619) 532-6650/7846 to make an appointment or get more information. The donor center is located in Bldg. 2 on the first floor.

Donating “the link to life” helps keep the lifeline strong for those who need it most whether the warfighter on the front line or the military family member in treatment at facilities like NMCSD.

About the Armed Services Blood Program
Since 1962, the Armed Services Blood Program has served as the sole provider of blood for the United States military. As a tri-service organization, the ASBP collects, processes, stores and distributes blood and blood products to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and their families worldwide. As one of four national blood collection organizations trusted to ensure the nation has a safe, potent blood supply, the ASBP works closely with our civilian counterparts by sharing donors on military installations where there are no military blood collection centers and by sharing blood products in times of need to maximize availability of this national treasure. To find out more about the ASBP or to schedule an appointment to donate, please visit To interact directly with ASBP staff members, see more photos or get the latest news, follow @militaryblood on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Pinterest. Find the drop. Donate.

The Armed Services Blood Program is a proud recipient of the Army Maj. Gen. Keith L. Ware Public Affairs award for journalism.