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Shipping blood, saving lives

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AFNS) -- The Blood Transshipment Center (BTC) at Al Udeid Air Base provides blood to more than 30 forward operating locations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

In 2015, the center shipped nearly 23,000 units of blood to nine countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The blood was used in transfusions helping save 222 people, including 18 U.S. service members, as well as Afghan and Iraqi citizens.

“Over the past six months, 65 percent of blood transfusions were conducted in Iraq,” said Master Sgt. Stephanie Washington, the 379th Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron diagnostics and therapeutics flight chief. “The majority of those transfusions were conducted on Iraqi’s with blood we shipped. So far in 2016, we’ve shipped 210 blood products and 722 pounds of dry ice, enabling 88 blood transfusions helping save 14 people.”

Blood is needed to sustain life and it’s critically needed on the battlefield. Dry ice is also in high demand to ensure blood is kept at a temperature of about zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The BTC can house up to 2,000 units of blood and more than 4,000 pounds of dry ice. The facility prepares several shipments each week, with many units of blood going to Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

Shipping blood and dry ice internationally is not easy, said Capt. Jennifer Swann, the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group BTC officer in charge.

“Prior to any shipment, blood must be thoroughly tested, entered into a tracking database, carefully loaded and approved to leave Qatar,” she said. “Some countries also have unique requirements before any hazardous material can be shipped to those nations, including blood or dry ice.

“Iraq, for example, has a four-day lead time before we can ship any blood or dry ice there, so if I need to send blood or plasma to Iraq, I can’t move that cargo until the fourth day,” Swann continued. “I’ll make the request on day zero and if there’s a flight four days later, it’ll go out.”

Swann said she plans shipments two weeks in advance and ensures her team conducts routine inventory of their blood stockpiles. She said the goal is to have blood delivered to the BTC within seven days of collection and to have it shipped to locations across the CENTCOM AOR as soon as possible.

“I look out to see what units have blood that will expire and what units have conducted transfusions recently; every location has a minimum amount of blood they would like to have on hand so every week we do our best to meet that and ensure they have what they need,” Swann said.

Senior Airman Celina Garcia, the 379th EMSS BTC logistician, is responsible for ensuring the BTC has the supplies and equipment needed to sustain its mission. She also ensures the blood the BTC packs is delivered to the flightline, often delivering the blood herself with a forklift.

“My responsibility is to get the blood we pack to the flightline where it’s loaded onto aircraft,” Garcia said. “I enjoy my job very much because I know the blood we provide is saving lives. Blood is a necessity and it’s critically needed during war.”

Swann said she’s proud of Garcia and her BTC team for the commitment they’ve displayed over the past year.

“We’ve stayed here for up to 16 hours at times to ensure we did everything we had to do and there was never a single complaint,” she said. “Everyone knows what we do is vital. We come in early some days, stay late others and they never question that. I’m very proud of them.”

The BTC receives blood shipments from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, after blood is donated by volunteers and collected at several Armed Services Blood Program Donation Centers.

Washington said it’s vital people donate blood so the Defense Department maintains its blood inventory. In 2011, she worked as a lab technician at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. She said the blood bank was the most important section of the lab.

“If you didn’t have the blood on hand, people wouldn’t survive,” she said. “If it wasn’t for donations, the ASBP and the operating locations within the AOR wouldn’t have any blood; only 5 percent of the eligible donor population in the United States actually donates and you need donors to keep the inventory going. There are direct AOR impacts from blood donations; when you donate to the DOD blood donor centers, eventually, that blood is shipped to people who need it.”