McALLEN — When urging the need for blood donations, Louis Corbeil recalls a helicopter flight out of Guadalajara in which an 18-year-old woman was involved in an accident that left her brain dead, a woman who was a donor and whose organs saved three people.
“One pint of blood can save up to three lives,” said Corbeil, director of air medical operations for the Hidalgo County EMS’ air ambulance service, South Texas Air Med.
Corbeil remembered the woman Wednesday when discussing Air Med now carrying blood on board its helicopter flights, strengthening life-saving measures mid-flight.
He said Air Med, which has since December been operating nearby McAllen Medical Center, is now the only air ambulance service carrying blood on board its Bell 407 helicopter in the Rio Grande Valley, with HALO in Corpus Christi being the nearest to also carry blood.
The blood is stored in a freezer inside the base and must stay between 0-10 degrees Celsius. With a price of about $420, an individual blood pack can save three lives. Two units are carried during calls with each unit roughly measuring 500 ml.
The blood packs are Type O-positive, since Type O-negative is in high demand, according to Corbeil.
“For us, O-positive blood is good for about 90% of the population,” Corbeil explained. As for the other 10%, they are given RhoGAM — a medication to treat any type of reaction to the Type O-positive blood.
Despite not knowing the blood type of the patient, there is a criteria to determine whether someone will receive blood: if the patient’s heart rate is greater than 120 beats per second, the patient’s blood pressure is less than 80, or the patient has penetrating chest trauma like gunshots or stab wounds to the vital area or abdomen.
“And either you get it or you die,” Corbeil said. “O-positive is still universal blood, but it’s not for everybody.”
South Texas Blood and Tissue, located in San Antonio, provides a supply of blood packs in Weslaco.
“The minute that we use it, they will actually deliver it to us,” Corbeil said of the restocking process. “By the time we get back from our call, it’ll be here at the base already ready to restock us.”
Although there’s a blood bank service nearby, Corbeil mentions that they approached them first but were unable to give them blood due to a shortage.
“Every three seconds, somebody needs a blood transfusion in the United States. Basically, there’s only 38% of the people that can actually give blood because the rest of them don’t qualify,” Corbeil said.
In explaining the percentage, Corbeil mentioned how potential donors are asked at least 30 questions, in addition to a form that must be filled out to determine if they’re able to donate blood. Using his own experience of surviving cancer, Corbeil mentioned that he was unable to give blood for five years.
“Only 38% qualify and out of that 38% people that qualify, only 10% are giving blood,” Corbeil said. “Donate blood. Go every three months.”
He went on to explain that a single percentage point increase, to 11%, would be enough to end the shortage in the U.S.
The main reason to begin carrying blood on board the aircraft is ultimately to save lives.
“Even if it’s just one life, it can make a difference,” Corbeil said.
In the field, Corbeil said emergency medical technicians have what they call the “golden hour,” which is the time that begins the moment a person is injured on the scene to the time they are taken to the operating room.
“If they get there within one hour, then they have a greater chance of survivability. But if somebody’s bleeding out and you can’t control the bleeding,” Corbeil said, continuing. “then, you need blood. That’s the only thing that’s gonna save you.”
Corbeil also explained that the patient doesn’t have an hour. Sometimes they might have minutes since every time the heart beats, five liters of fluid is distributed.
Before carrying blood on board, EMS had saline and lactated ringers. However, that only diluted the patient’s blood.
“Blood is what does everything,” Corbeil said. “The sooner you get the blood, the more likely you are that you’re going to survive.”
Although it appears to be necessary to carry blood on board, Corbeil mentions that it is very expensive as they don’t get reimbursed for blood.
“If we can save one life, we’re gonna do it and it doesn’t matter what it costs,” he said.