Bloodworks Northwest’s Executive Vice President of Blood Services Vicki Finson knows what happens behind the scenes when the blood supply dips to emergency levels. Listen in as she describes her reaction to learning about the February 2020 shooting in downtown Seattle during a severe blood shortage, and her advice to our community to make sure we’re ready for the next crisis, including the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
Listen below or read on for a full transcript.
What really happens in a blood supply emergency? Catch the latest episode of #Bloodworks101, where co-producer @BillHarperIV interviews EVP of Blood Services Vicki Finson to talk turkey about emergencies, & what we should be doing now to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. pic.twitter.com/XwpgjCRVnN— Bloodworks Northwest 🩸 (@BloodworksNW) March 27, 2020
Vicki: My own internal sense of uncertainty and fear, I think was maybe on hyperdrive because I was very concerned about how many victims there were and our ability to respond. So I started getting on the phone and calling folks, making sure we were moving things around and mobilizing ourselves to be able to triage more units to Harborview.
John: Hi, I’m John Yeager, and this is “Bloodworks 101,” a monthly podcast designed to inspire and educate people to donate either time, money, or blood. We’re the leading blood supplier to more than 90 hospitals from the Canadian border to Southern Oregon, including just about everywhere in Western Washington. What a crazy three weeks? We are literally on the front lines as COVID-19 spreads across the United States. It is a time, to put it mildly, of great uncertainty. And that goes for the blood supply as well. Right now, thanks to our generous donors, Bloodworks Northwest is able to meet the needs of our area, but that could change in a heartbeat as the emergency widens and coronavirus tightens its grip. Today we’re gonna hear from Vicki Finson, our Executive VP in charge of Blood Services. It’s Vicki’s job to oversee the day to day response to emergencies like this one. I think you’re gonna be fascinated at this behind the scenes look at what happens to the blood supply in an emergency. My colleague, Bill Harper takes it from here. Bill.
Bill: Thanks, John. Since the beginning of March alone, and with schools closing and businesses instructing employees to work from home in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve had to cancel 570 blood drives and lost over 11,500 donations. Immediately and without warning, our communities and blood supply were thrust into crisis. And we had blood works broke the emergency glass. Our CEO, Kurt Bailey, went on radio and TV and was quoted in the local, national and international press saying our blood supply is at risk of collapse. In our 75 year history, we’d never use that language before or anything like it. I sat in on meetings where supervisors were saying we were literally going to run out of blood in five days. The energy of Bloodworks Northwest was frenetic, underscored with uncertainty, but much more so with determination. We had to get this right.
What we did not anticipate was the response we got from our community in what could only be described as an uprising of donors, many for the first time breaking records of blood collection set on seminal days like September 11th, 2001. It was truly a bright spot amid the turmoil. But what we don’t know is when this public health crisis will end. And Vicki Finson knows that that uncertainty is a big problem. What we saw after that day in other events like it was a surge of donors, but the trouble has been, many of them just didn’t come back. This time it has to be different. We don’t know when the strain the coronavirus has put in our communities and blood supply will end. And of everyone at Bloodworks Northwest, Vicki is the best one to ask what happens if and when the donations drop off. So I asked her the question. We had her interview in February right after the mass shooting in downtown Seattle in pre-coronavirus, but the cautionary tale she tells for all of us remains the same. It is only together that we get through this.
Can you tell me what do you love about your job?
Vicki: The thing I love most about my job, two things, and they’re tied, they’re even, they are the people I work with every day, makes me wanna come to work, and also just that feeling that knowing everything we all do matters, that if we weren’t doing a good job, people would be harmed in our community. And because we’re doing a good job, people’s lives are saved, which means not just the people who are transfused, but the friends, the families, the co-workers of all those people who need blood transfusions for their wellbeing and for their life. That’s what makes my job great.
Bill: Yeah, of course, it would. What are you frustrated by…? What challenges you?
Vicki: Yeah, what challenges me is, it’s becoming harder and harder to speak to people so that they understand the need to donate blood. I think that’s the biggest challenge. And it really takes a conversation in enough volume to make sure that enough people donate blood. We need 1,000 people that donate blood every day.
Vicki: That’s a lot of people. And the same people sort of donate over and over again. And what I think our biggest challenge right now is getting more new people to donate.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. I would say that many people in our community really only think about blood donation when a tragedy strikes or when there’s an emergency or something in the news about someone getting injured. The Amtrak derailment would be a good example or, you know, there’s a mass shooting either locally or somewhere else. On February 24th in an interview with Camo news, you said, “When I heard about the shootings, the first thing I said to myself was I’m not sure that the blood supply can handle multiple victims.” Tell me what that was like.
Vicki: It was utter panic in my mind because I really didn’t know how significant the shooting was. I was actually in transit myself, commuting back downtown, where I live, from our Renton facility. And there was a disruption in the link service. So I quickly found out why they had shut the link transit down, so I started walking home, which isn’t far. And there was such an odd sensation out on the street, a sense of uncertainty and fear. And I heard the ambulances going by and I knew they were going in the direction of Harborview. And we know and it was publicly stated that that’s where the accident victims or the shooting victims went. And my own internal sense of uncertainty and fear, I think, was maybe on hyperdrive because I was very concerned about how many victims they were and our ability to respond. So I started getting on the phone and calling folks, making sure we were moving things around and mobilizing ourselves to be able to triage more units to Harborview as quickly as we could. We were lucky that night because what had happened was that was right after the holiday season, and the first part of January is known to be a troubling time period for blood collectors because everyone’s focused on getting back into the routine, and getting back to school, and getting back to work. And we had had lower collections. And then we had weather. We had snow. We had significant disruption to the ability for donors to get to us.
We had to cancel a lot of mobiles the week before. So the blood supply was emergency levels when the emergency happened. And truly, there was one user who used a significant amount, and we had what they needed at Harborview. But if there had been 10, 12, 20 users, we would have had some delays in providing units of blood. And I think that then we had a lot of conversation with folks after that, that you’re absolutely right, people think, “Oh, I just heard that there was a shooting or a train derailment or whatever it might be, or the blood supplies are low because of snow or whatever else.” But actually, we needed to be worried about it before those things happen. And really, we have the responsibility here at Bloodworks to be ready at any time for whatever can happen. It could be an earthquake with multiple victims over a large area, it could be a large traffic pileup. It can be all things or it can be a bunch of smaller things that all happen at the same time. Talk about how we take for granted that the blood will always be there, but it’s not the same as buying bandages. It is totally different because someone has to donate that unit of blood, that then we have to do some things to make available. So the blood has to really be donated out at least three to five days before so that we know it’s ready to go and it’s where it needs to be.
Bill: Yeah, it sounds like people need to be educated why it’s important and then also go to into the lifestyle to take the time, and take the intention, and to actually donate the blood so that it’s always there should the worst happen, as it does, you know, from time to time.
Vicki: You know, the number of donors we have, we need more new donors as well. But even if the donors we have here that have donated at Bloodworks, donated more frequently or regularly, we would be in a much, much better place. So you know, an average donor who donates the more general kind of donation to public can donate up to five times a year. Platelet donors can donate actually 24 times a year. And we would love it if our platelet donors donated once a month. That would be great. So you think about, you can take a couple of hours of your life, a few times a year, and do something truly remarkable. And then have a good time while you’re doing it, and get to meet with our staff, and talk with them, feel really re-energized by the fact you got a little bit of rest during your day where no one’s gonna bug you. You could sit and relax…
Bill: to find the time to rest…
Vicki: Exactly. You can watch a movie. You can listen to a podcast. You can read a book. You can just close your eyes and relax if you want or you can talk to our staff…
Bill: A little bit of time off in the middle of the day.
Vicki: Exactly. And then go eat some cookies and splurge a little. And look at that. You just saved multiple people’s lives.
Bill: It’s almost like a little bit of a spa treatment.
Vicki: It could be a spa treatment. You know, maybe that’s an idea. Maybe we need to find some folks to come in and do some foot massage or something too. It’s such a great idea. So I think it’s a really great reminder to all of us that 24/7 365, emergencies can happen and the Blood Center with the help of the community needs to be prepared, 365 days of the year for whatever happens, it could be something large, like a mass shooting. It could be a train derailment. It could be an earthquake. It could be a very large multiple vehicle accident or it could be a combination of small things that add up to a day where there’s a lot of blood usage. And we’re always trying to be prepared for that as best we can.
Bill: If the worst-case scenario happens and there is something like an Orlando or Las Vegas, and there just isn’t enough blood on hand, I mean, what actually would happen in those type of situations?
Vicki: Yeah, you know, if something happened, it was really large, and there really wasn’t the available blood already on the shelf, donated three or five days ago at least, so that it’s available and ready to go, people would die. And we don’t like to talk about that, and blood centers don’t like to say that out loud. But that’s the reality of the situation. You know, the medical community, the emergency departments would triage patients as best they could. They do that now if there’s mass casualty, of course, just like the military does. And some choices would probably have to be made. There are things that can be done to stall until you can get the blood products you need. So there would probably be some of that as well. But if someone is truly bleeding out, at some point, you have to have blood to give them back. One of the things that we do when we are short here at Bloodworks of blood is we do triage and we do delay transfusions to some patients. There are medical teams if they can be delayed, so that they can go to surgery or trauma patients that need them immediately, people who are bleeding. But it’s one of those things that maybe we should talk about it more. Maybe if we talked about what the actual consequence of not having enough people donate blood regularly, really is, maybe more people would try to make it part of their routine. But I think it’s an opportunity for anyone listening who really does understand what that means, pay it forward.
Just tell some more people. Ask them to tell some more people because really, most blood donors start because of a conversation they had with someone and the realization that this is real and important, and that you can’t just do it once every 10 years. You’re not really doing your duty there. If you’re eligible to donate and you’re healthy, and it makes you feel good, then this would be the perfect time to commit to doing it three to five times a year, maybe even trying platelets, which is a special kind of donation, where if you really love donating blood, you can do that even more often. And those platelets are really important. They go to cancer, leukemia patients, also trauma patients, also surgery patients, but we primarily think of them going to people who are fighting really horrific diseases like cancer and leukemia. So, I would say it’s a call to action. The entire nation has experienced some of the worst blood shortages over the last couple of years than we have experienced for decades before, and it’s just because less people are donating blood. It’s not because we’re using more, it’s because less people are donating blood. And it’s not…
Bill: Is it a solvable problem?
Vicki: It is, and it’s not generational. Some people throughout the country like to say, “Oh, it’s the millennial fault.” No, it isn’t. It’s all of our fault. All generations. All generations are donating blood less than they used to. I think it’s because there’s so much noise out there and so many distractions that it’s easy for us the important stuff to sometimes get lost in the noise. And I really, really hope that this year, we’ll be able to encourage more people to donate more frequently, get some more people to donate, who’ve maybe never tried it, get some people who maybe think of themselves as donors, but haven’t done it in three, four or five years, And the people who maybe do it once a year to step up and do it three or four times a year. It would solve the problem. John: Thanks for that story, Bill. Stay safe. Well, that’s just about it for this episode of “Bloodworks10.” But before we go, I just wanna remind you that the best most effective thing you can do during an emergency like this is to make an appointment for your next donation. Go to bloodworksnw.org. I’m John Yeager, your host for “Bloodworks 101.” Thanks for listening.