Salt Lake City, Utah, United States
Being a blood banker is an interesting job and one not many understand. “So you draw people’s blood?” No, that’s a phlebotomist. “Oh, but you work in a hospital. Are you a nurse?” No. “If I donate blood, can I request you?” Still no. Everything a blood banker does is behind the scenes. We are the hidden heroes of the hospital.
I work at a blood bank that serves a Level One trauma hospital, a specialized cancer center, and a pediatric hospital, all of which are connected by a catacomb of hallways. We are sophisticated in our services to these hospitals, having full unit blood cell washers and an onsite blood irradiator. We also have a supply of frozen units for deglycerization, needed when patients with tricky antibodies come for transfusion. Similar to the genetic, specialized care that is happening all over the nation, our center does phenotypically matched units for certain clinical situations. We are an impressive giant when it comes to blood banks.
I gravitated toward hospital work after my best friend from high school was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, where he received a bone marrow transplant. Witnessing his experience changed my direction in life. I wanted to give something back to the place that saved my friend’s life, but was unqualified for anything without schooling. I found an entry-level job as a messenger, which was a great way for me to understand the medical field. This position took me all around the hospital doing the busy work nurses did not have time to do, like discharging patients or taking specimens to the lab. This job was my introduction to a blood bank. As a messenger in a Level One trauma center, I was also extra hands for the ER staff. When a page came across that a trauma was coming, I would rush to the blood bank and pick up units to use if needed.
A turning point happened when a doctor asked me to hold a patient’s skull together. I did as the doctor instructed, but the experience scarred me; it was more than what my nineteen-year-old self could handle. At that moment I knew being on the front line was not for me. When a job opened for a Blood Component Specialist in the blood bank, it felt like a perfect fit.
A Blood Component Specialist (BCS) is a unique position. It is a necessity for the scale of functionality we see daily in our facility. The BCS manages everything that does not require a medical lab science degree. This position was created to perform the initial receipt of blood products, all modifications for blood components, and the dispensing of units to the nursing staff for transfusion. They are the ones who communicate with the doctors and nursing staff transfusing the units. This position alleviates a lot of the pressures placed on the medical lab scientists, so they can focus on the patient’s workup.
I started this job as a young college student; young enough to have a fresh mind and energy to dedicate to it but not experienced enough to understand the importance of the job. Through highly specialized training and dedication, working in the blood bank has become very dear to me. We are silent supporters for patients fighting illness and injury.
When a patient comes in for cancer treatment and needs a platelet transfusion, this order comes to the blood bank for me to prepare. All the patient sees is a nurse ordering a platelet unit and then it magically appears for them, beautiful and clean, swirling with impressive little cells that will help boost their count and combat the evil wreaking havoc in their bodies, just as it did with my friend.
When there is a car accident and a patient is being flown by helicopter to my facility, we have five minutes to grab type O Negative units and prepare them for the patient’s arrival. Ironically, I am now the one that prepares this blood for the messenger to pick up.
Liver transplants, premature babies, bone marrow transplants, hemorrhages after delivering a baby, surgeries, ski accidents, breast cancers . . . so many people we help, in an invisible way.
The job of a Blood Component Specialist might be invisible, but it is far from stress free. We are the ones on the other end of a phone call with a concerned doctor worried about her patient or a nurse consulting about a possible reaction. Our training in patient care, paired with confidence in making life-saving decisions means we put as much consideration into every blood order as the clinical staff ordering and administering the blood. Our choices can mean the difference between life and death.
What I find unique about my blood bank is the culture of teamwork. In a crisis there is no ego, no unkindness toward others, only collaboration and unity in saving a life. Our fast feet matter; our quick decisions decide if a patient lives or dies. When we get the page for Massive Transfusion Protocol (MTP) everyone is there to help, Laboratory Scientist included. I often call it an organized beehive; every soldier knowing their job and working calmly and professionally to save lives. This kind of teamwork is rare and masterful to witness and participate in. When a patient’s outcome is not what we hoped for, it is hard on us—just as if we were there on the front line.
It is the same for all careers in laboratory work: we are silent heroes doing what we can for patients we only know by a name or number, without ever meeting or speaking to any of them. We do our job to the fullest and send the product on its way. Some of us like the anonymity of doing our best work without anyone knowing. This part of my job often creeps into other places in my life. I like doing things to help others without them knowing; I feel more human, alive, and connected. The culture of our blood bank has made it that way.
When I accepted my position nearly twenty years ago, I would have never believed that it would lead me to a career of helping people, but I revere it as unique among other jobs; it is more than just a job, but a passion for helping. It takes hidden strength and daily dedication to patient care. This job brings people together for one thing: saving lives. Some days it is exhausting, other days it is manageable. Every day is different, but the goal is still the same—keep blood flowing, keep life going.
We are the hidden heroes in patient care.
CANDACE J. THOMAS has nearly twenty years’ experience working in a blood bank near the snow-crested mountains of Utah. She is a published author of fantasy and science fiction, and teaches classes to writers about the mechanics of blood science around the Wasatch Front.