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Blood on the water: Changes allow clinic to use B.C. Ferries for shipping

Catherine Sloot, with Canadian Blood Services, holds a bag of donated blood above a stack of transport boxes at the clinic on Saanich Road. - Don Denton/News staff
Catherine Sloot, with Canadian Blood Services, holds a bag of donated blood above a stack of transport boxes at the clinic on Saanich Road.
— image credit: Don Denton/News staff

Blood donors in Greater Victoria know that there’s a lot riding on their donation. And soon their blood will be riding on something else: the nightly 9 p.m. ferry to Tsawwassen.

The Canadian Blood Services (CBS) clinic on Saanich Road is about to make blood donations even more valuable. However, doing so will mean the collection bags can no longer be shipped by plane.

Later this year the clinic will switch to a new system that can better collect platelets, vital for helping cancer patients around the province.

“This will have a dramatic impact on people’s lives,” said Catherine Sloot, partnership specialist with the blood service. Chemotherapy treatments can result in a loss of platelets, which help form clots or scabs on cut or broken skin.

Donated blood is flown to Vancouver where it is broken down in a centrifuge into multiple products, including red blood cells, plasma-based components, and platelets. The latter separates into a layer known as the buffy coat.

“Platelets only have a shelf life of five days. So the faster we can collect the (platelet-heavy) buffy coat … and get it to hospitals, the better,” Sloot said.

The new system essentially refines how blood is stored, allowing the platelets a better chance of survival while being transported to Vancouver. The existing method favours red blood cell survival – blood donations are stored around 4 C, nearly 20 degrees colder than the temperature at which platelets should be stored.

But the changes have logistical implications for distribution down the line. To better ensure platelets don’t perish on the trip to the CBS laboratory in Vancouver, Saanich clinic employee Sean Kenny will see changes to how he ships blood.

Instead of packing styrofoam coolers with icepacks and blood bags, and sending them across the water every evening on a chartered flight, CBS is investing in refrigerator trucks with elaborate cooling trays. This will help keep the blood stored in the most opportune environment before it’s centrifuged at the Vancouver lab.

Kenny will still make a nightly run up to Sidney with the blood – laid out on the trays – but now he’ll give the donations to a CBS employee from the mainland, who’ll drive them onto the ferry.

“We’re used to change at this place. We work within our standard operating procedures to ensure we’re caring for the integrity of the blood in the best way possible,” Kenny said. “This is a really fluid operation – no pun intended.”

The changes will also represent a financial savings in the long run, as it’ll cost significantly less to take the ferry than it is to fly two dozen boxes of blood every night.

“This is not the reason we’re doing it, but it is a more cost-effective method,” Sloot said. “It’s more about taking a positive step to fine-tune the way that a unit of blood is being used.”

The red blood cells are used to help accident victims, surgical patients, and people with anaemia. Plasma is typically used to treat burn and trauma victims.

The only change donors will notice is the clinic’s operating hours, which start one hour earlier starting April 9. The clinic, located at 3449 Saanich Rd., will be open 10:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, as well as on alternating Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Mark Stefanson, vice-president of public affairs with B.C. Ferries, says the company will appreciate the steady business from CBS, especially on a sailing that isn’t typically busy.

“We’re really, really pleased that Canadian Blood Services has chosen us as their mechanism of transport,” Stefanson said. He added that the 9 p.m. Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen ferry is rarely affected by cancellations.

Sloot hopes the earlier hours will benefit the donors, too, and allow businesses and schools, which donate en masse, to better accommodate donating into their schedule.

“There is always a need for blood donors. There’s nowhere else to get it,” Sloot said.

To register to donate or volunteer, call 1-888-2-DONATE or visit blood.ca.

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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