Michigan Blood issues 120,000 pints of red blood cells each year, as well as smaller amounts of platelets and plasma. Each unit has a specific shlef life that ranges from five days to one year. Courtesy Michigan Blood
A pint comes out, a pint goes in. That’s likely how many people feel blood donation works. In reality, the blood business is a whole lot more complicated.
The logistics involved in the Michigan Blood network can make heads spin with the amount of work that goes into distributing blood donations to more than 40 hospitals across Michigan, including all of Grand Rapids’ hospitals.
The warehousing and distribution of blood isn’t all that different from food items, said Todd Masters, director of logistics at Michigan Blood.
There are three products that come out of blood donations — red cells, platelets and plasma — and each is perishable. Every year, Michigan Blood issues 120,000 units (pints) of red cells, 21,000 platelets and 35,000 plasma products. Each product is separated from the initial donation and distributed separately.
Frozen plasma lasts a year, red cells make it 42 days, and platelets are done in five days.
“You have to watch them every day,” Masters said of platelets. “You can’t take your eyes off them.”
Making things more challenging is the platelets are separated and tested the first two days, and most hospitals prefer not to use them on the fifth day, leaving a two-day window for use.
To help combat that problem, there’s the Platelet Partners Program, in which hospitals work together to use the platelets on the shelves before they expire. When one hospital sees a batch is on its fifth day, it puts the batch in the network, and a hospital in need speaks up. A courier then drives the platelets from one hospital to the other.
“If someone makes a donation, we want to use it,” Masters said. “This industry is about saving lives and we take that very seriously.”
Unlike most other industries, Michigan Blood can’t just make more blood. It relies on donations from the public. Masters and his team must watch inventory levels, hospital demand and donations to ensure everything is working smoothly. The storage and movement of blood also is FDA regulated.
“There’s no substitute for human blood,” said Meredith Gremel, director of public relations and marketing at Michigan Blood. “You can’t just say, ‘We need more,’ and boost the inventory. And it’s very match dependent.”
Along with a large recruitment process, Masters oversees 3,700 mobile blood drives and 50 vehicles in a fleet that travels more than 1.3 million miles a year to move blood throughout the state. Even though there’s more than 70 drives a week, the eight distribution centers still run low, especially in mid- to late January, Masters said.
“What we’re feeling right now is the impact from Christmas,” he said. “We see a lag in donations during the holiday season, and now with the flu season, people are sick and can’t donate.”
That brings the need to find new donors. Roughly 37 percent of the population is eligible to donate blood, but only about 5 percent does, Gremel said.
“Some people just aren’t aware of the need,” she said. “Some families are raised with it — the dad comes home and gives a kid his sticker. Then there are a whole bunch who’ve never been exposed to it.”
Gremel calls the 5 percent who donate “unsung heroes” because they’re saving lives every day without anyone knowing it.
According to Masters, high schools and colleges are very important to Michigan Blood. They not only make up about 22 percent of the donations, but also are key in introducing blood donations to a new generation.
Although the blood stays in state, Michigan Blood is one of 20 public umbilical cord banks in the United States and is a participant in the International Be the Match Registry for bone marrow transplants.
“When a mom has a baby, we have the ability to collect stem cells from the umbilical cord, and those can be used to save patients,” Gremel said. “A baby hasn’t even been alive for more than a minute and it’s already saved a life. It just kind of lifts you.”
The bone marrow program at Michigan Blood has matched bone marrow to patients on five continents and hundreds of countries. Masters said Michigan Blood has saved lives across the globe.
“Every industry treats the logistics aspect as life or death,” said Masters. “This really is dealing with life or death.”