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The importance of donating blood

A volunteer donates platelets Feb. 14 at Armed Services Blood Bank Center-San Antonio facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The facility supports service members in Afghanistan, Iraq, San Antonio Military Medical Facility and the local Veterans Affairs hospital. The platelets are for patients with cancer, burns and bleeding problems.

A volunteer donates platelets Feb. 14 at Armed Services Blood Bank Center-San Antonio facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Part of the 59th Medical Diagnostic and Therapeutics Squadron, the facility supports service members in Afghanistan, Iraq, San Antonio Military Medical Facility and the local Veterans Affairs hospital. The platelets are for patients with cancer, burns and bleeding problems. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Krystal Wright)

A medical lab technician draws blood from a volunteer for  Feb. 14 at Armed Services Blood Bank Center-San Antonio facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The facility supports service members in Afghanistan, Iraq, San Antonio Military Medical Facility and the local Veterans Affairs hospital. The platelets are for patients with cancer, burns and bleeding problems.

A medical lab technician draws blood from a volunteer for Feb. 14 at Armed Services Blood Bank Center-San Antonio facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Part of the 59th Medical Diagnostic and Therapeutics Squadron, the facility supports service members in Afghanistan, Iraq, San Antonio Military Medical Facility and the local Veterans Affairs hospital. The platelets are for patients with cancer, burns and bleeding problems. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Krystal Wright)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Receiving the gift of blood can mean the difference between life-or-death for those in need. In order for them to receive this life-saving substance, others must be willing to donate their blood.

“Nobody plans to need blood,” said Tracy Parmer, Armed Services Blood Bank Center-San Antonio public affairs specialist and blood donor recruiter with the 59th Medical Diagnostic and Therapeutics Squadron. “That’s why we tell people to donate because one day it might be you, your family or your Airman (who need it).”

The ASBBC-SA, which includes the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland facility and Akeroyd Blood Donor Center at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, supports services members down range in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, they support San Antonio Military Medical Center, the local Veterans Affairs hospital, as well as special missions like natural disasters.

“When you are injured in Iraq or Afghanistan you go to Landstuhl, Germany,” Parmer said. “Then, when you stabilize, you go to one of two places: Walter Reed Army Medical Center or SAMMC. So, we support them in Afghanistan and when they come here for the rest of their treatment.”

Since the inception of Armed Services Blood Program, which ASBBC-SA falls under, more than 1.5 million units of blood have been provided to treat battlefield illnesses and injuries, according to the ASBP’s website, http://www.militaryblood.dod.mil/. They also supports the peacetime needs and provide for military hospitals for scheduled and emergency procedures.

About five percent of eligible donors actually donate. Regular donors, those committed to giving blood once a season, are so important in ensuring blood is available year-round.

“I have been here nine years and I have never seen a unit (of blood) expire,” Parmer said. “There is always someplace for it to go.”

To fulfill their quota to meet mission requirements, ASBBC-SA has to collect about 1,400 units a month.

These blood units are separated into three main components: red blood cells or RBCs, plasma and platelets. Volunteers may donate blood, which is then separated into RBCs and plasma, or just platelets as the collection process is different.

Plasma is use to increase blood volume while RBCs are what carry oxygen to the brain, Parmer explained.

“If you are losing blood, what you want to get first – how your body is going to survive – is oxygen so they are going to need RBCs,” she elaborated. “Then, after they get oxygen going through your body, they are going to give you plasma to increase blood volume.”

Plasma can last for a year if it’s frozen while RBCs lasts 42 days. Platelets on the other hand last five days.

Some patients, however, are unable to use blood that stored, even if it hasn’t expired, which is one reason blood must be continuously collected.

“We collect for pediatric patients who have to have blood that is less than three days old because they are already immunocompromised, like a baby born at 24 weeks,” Parmer explained, recalling a preemie who had needed blood every other day.

There are other reasons for the need of a continuous flow of blood donations.

A single trauma victim may need 40 or more units of blood while eight units of platelets may be required daily by leukemia patients undergoing treatment, according to ASBP.

“(What we need) really depends on what is going on in the world; like we are supposed to collect 12 platelets a day,” Parmer added. “They are specifically for SAMMC and the VA hospital. They are for our cancer patients, people with bad burns and people with bleeding problems. Some days we don’t get them all because platelets are hard; it takes about three hours to draw and finding Airmen willing to leave their office for so long is hard.”

Another difficulty ASBP centers face in collecting donations is that they are only able to collect from people who are Department of Defense affiliated and have base access: service members, their dependents, retirees, DOD civilians and contractors.

“On average we get about 150 to 200 (units) a week from trainees,” Parmer said. “The rest come from permanent party members.”

During permanent change of station moves or during the holidays when service members go on leave, ASBBC-SA have shortages and are unable to meet their minimum quota.

When the ASBBC-SA doesn’t collect enough products for SAMMC and the VA hospital, “they can try to buy them from South Texas Blood and Tissue, but they might not have the product because they have their own hospitals they have to take care of,” Parmer said.

Depending on the product, it could cost upwards to $600 a unit.

“It’s important to donate because it could be you,” Parmer said.

Parmer recognizes not everyone interested in donating is able to go to the center. So, organizations and units are able to set up a donation drive at their facility and she will bring the center’s bus.

“This center takes care of Randolph, Fort Sam Houston, Lackland and Camp-Bullis,” she said. “We have traveled as far as Corpus Christi and Laughlin (Air Force Base, Texas). We travel around to try to get everything we need because we can only collect from … people who are military affiliated.”

They are even able to do themed drives and competitions between units.

“Stuff like that makes it fun, makes everyone feel part of the process and gets the blood I need,” Parmer explained.

Getting donations is important to her on a personal level.

“If you ever get the chance to witness someone who comes in as a trauma (patient) lifeless and then watch the doctors give them blood and they wake up … it’s an amazing thing,” Parmer said. “It is such an amazing thing to know you were a part in making that happen.”

Anyone interested in donating blood or being a point of contact for a blood drive can contact Parmer at (210) 292-8145 or (210) 292-8100.