Taking Flight: Life-saving Whole Blood Now Aboard First Flight

May 22, 2022 at 06:00 pm by pj

Carrying whole Type-O blood on board air ambulances is rare in Florida – but makes all the difference for the most vulnerable trauma patients.

If the sight (or even mention) of blood makes you a little weak in the knees, perhaps read no further.

But a recent decision by Health First to supply First Flight air ambulance crews with whole Type-O blood just might be a lifesaving gamechanger, making Brevard County one of the first in the state to have this added layer of trauma care.

Why does the type of blood aboard medical air ambulances matter when they’re already amply equipped to save lives? Typically, critical trauma patients are given blood “parts” – packed red blood cells and liquid plasma. These unit components offer more diversity for treatment, but whole blood means all of the components are together at once. Less interruption in care, lower total volume.

“For our trauma patients, the ability to provide whole blood in the prehospital setting at the earliest point of patient care is exciting and groundbreaking for our region. Use of whole blood in this setting in both military and civilian studies suggest that whole blood may reduce mortality, which is our primary goal,” said Dr. Peter Depowski, Medical Director of Health First Transfusion Services.

Dr. Depowski credited the health system’s blood supplier, OneBlood, for a fruitful collaboration, and he said his team recently validated the larger blood coolers required to carry whole blood aboard First Flight.

In extreme cases, bleeding is so quick and heavy that patients suffer every minute from the absence of a whole blood transfusion. On average, First Flight performs about 12-15 transfusions a year, says Rob Spivey, First Flight Nurse Manager, or about one a month. Since October the operation has been averaging two a month.

Now, life-saving whole blood transfusions can be made before arriving at Brevard County’s only Level-II trauma center at Holmes Regional Medical Center, making First Flight the state’s only air ambulance to provide begin blood enroute.

“This is a very low-cost, high-threshold therapy we deliver to patients that makes a difference,” he says. “Just one patient saved is worth it.”

Blood transfusions to save the lives of hemorrhaging patients is about 200 years old, but blood component therapies became the standard of care after the Vietnam War era. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though, renewed the need for more direct and robust resuscitation, and whole blood’s use in far-forward military operations showed high stability and dramatic decreases in mortality.

Spivey says he is aware of a south Florida county air ambulance system that intends to begin boarding whole blood but hasn’t yet. He said he expects all of Central Florida to jump on this trend soon.

“This has been a great collaboration between the First Flight team, the Blood Bank at Holmes Regional Medical Center and our blood supplier, OneBlood,” Dr. Depowski said. “Rob Spivey and Stephanie Marrs, Blood Bank Supervisor Stephanie Marrs have been pivotal.”

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