Lines of volunteers appeared out of nowhere and snaked around hospitals and blood centers throughout the country last week within minutes of the plea for blood. Meanwhile, medical supply companies worked to overcome the ban on commercial air traffic to get their goods to disaster scenes where rescuers worked under warlike conditions.
By day two after a coordinated terrorist attack leveled New York's World Trade Center and crippled the Pentagon, New York officials reported the public responded to their plea for blood in overwhelming numbers. At the same time, hospitals reported they had more than enough supplies of drugs and equipment ready for patients who eerily never came.
The urgent calls for blood donations brought out thousands of people, said Melissa McMillan, a spokeswoman for America's Blood Centers, Washington, speaking on behalf of New York Blood Center, the main supplier of the city's blood. Throughout the country, hospitals and community groups launched blood-donation drives within hours of hearing of the attacks.
The New York blood bank reported it handled 12,000 calls and collected 5,000 units of blood in the first 24 hours after the disaster-more than triple its usual daily activity. In addition, up to 1,800 units of blood were shipped under police escort from outside the metropolitan area.
Having an "ample" five-day supply of blood on hand keyed the initial response, McMillan said.
"It made a huge difference in the immediate care of patients," McMillan said. "It's the best example of why we need to have a full supply of blood when something terrible happens."
A surge of volunteers
At Saint Vincents Hospital and Medical Center, the closest trauma center to ground zero of the New York disaster area, 500 blood donors showed up on the first day, organizing themselves by blood type with makeshift cardboard signs, said Bernadette Kingham, a hospital spokeswoman. While city officials subsequently sent buses to the hospital to take the donors to the blood center, the volunteers continued to line up at the hospital in the days after. McMillan said the need for blood would never go away, but independent blood centers were asking donors to schedule appointments over the next few weeks to guarantee a steady supply.
Outside New York, collecting blood took boundless energy to keep blood centers open until the hundreds of thousands of donors willing to stand in lines for hours could be accommodated.
With flights grounded nationwide in the wake of the terrorist attacks, getting those precious pints of life processed and delivered to New York was another matter entirely.
The American Red Cross activated its Aviation Incident Response Team and mobilized 50,000 units of blood from its inventory at blood banks around the country to be shipped by military transport, according to American Red Cross spokeswoman Dawn Marks. The first request came through the Red Cross' New York City chapter for 150 units.
"We are ready to supply hospitals with whatever they need," Marks said. "We're urging people to call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE."
Karen Lipton, chief executive officer of the American Association of Blood Banks, said her organization's 2,000 blood bank members are focusing on its National Blood Exchange, a program that allows blood providers to share with other blood banks in need around the country.
"The information is unfolding, and inventories are relatively good," Lipton said. "But we will need more blood. The biggest dilemma now is getting it there. Right now we're struggling to get blood in. Our member hospitals are reporting many burn victims, who often need multiple transfusions. We're trying to increase regional collections outside of the target areas." Donors and donor organizations can call the National Blood Exchange at 301-907-6651.
A flight for life
Mayo Aviation, Denver, and the Flight for Life medical-evacuation operation at 417-bed St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver managed to beat the odds.
They delivered 500 units of whole blood-and three federal disaster workers to boot-to New Jersey, where authorities arranged to deliver the blood to Manhattan and to a New Jersey blood bank across the Hudson River from New York City.
Kathy Mayer, Flight for Life's director, said Mayo officials offered to fly in any medical supplies, blood or clinicians that would be needed in New York, if the aviators could win federal clearance to fly. Mayer tried calling Blonfils Blood Center in Denver, but the lines were jammed by potential donors calling in. Eventually they hooked up, and Blonfils said it could provide 300 units of whole blood, already processed by Blonfils' on-site laboratory.
Meanwhile, Mayo officials were working their contacts with the Federal Aviation Administration and won conditional approval for the flight. Radio stations in Denver got wind of the mission, and once it was broadcast, a suburban fire chief called Mayer.
"One of his firefighters also works for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and there were three disaster workers altogether who needed to get to New York City," Mayer said. The FAA and military officials wanted absolute assurance that the blood and people were requested by authorities in New York. The New Jersey Red Cross confirmed the need for processed blood, and FEMA's Washington headquarters cleared the disaster workers.
A Flight for Life helicopter picked up the blood at Blonfils and delivered it to Centennial Airport in suburban Englewood, Colo., where Mayo Aviation officials were readying a Hawker-Sidley corporate jet. "We got out there at 1: 45 a.m., and it was so eerily silent," Mayer said. "There was nothing overhead, and this is the fourth-largest general aviation airport in the country."
By 2 a.m. Denver time, the jet and its important parcels and passengers were on their way to Lincoln, Neb., to pick up another 200 units of whole blood.
As the jet made its way to Teterboro (N.J.) Airport, across the river from New York, the jet was the only private plane in the sky during the wee hours of last Wednesday, Mayer said, but it was not alone. Military planes escorted the jet for parts of the flight, and the pilot told Mayer that air traffic controllers all along the flight pattern thanked and encouraged him.
"This was the first blood to get airborne for New York City," Mayer said. "Blonfils was able to process it quickly, and Mayo did an exceptional job getting all these clearances." Mayo also agreed to underwrite part of the cost of the flight, and the local office of a petroleum company is seeking corporate approval to pay the fuel tab, Mayer said.
Once on the ground, four and a half hours later, or about 8: 30 a.m. Eastern time, the jet was met by a van with a police escort and a detachment of the New York National Guard, equipped with a Blackhawk helicopter and small tank. The blood supply was split between centers in New York and Brunswick, N.J., Mayer said.
A plethora of donations
New York volunteers overwhelmed hospitals with contributions of food, water, clothes and cash. Saint Vincents set out cases of donated drink and food at a special area two blocks from the hospital visited by distraught people searching for missing loved ones.
"We have more supplies than we know what to do with," said Kathleen Hill Zichy, senior vice president of corporate development at 149-bed New York University Downtown Hospital, just 10 blocks from the World Trade Center. The implosions blacked out the surrounding neighborhood, requiring the hospital to operate on emergency generators throughout the week.
Zichy said an e-mail request from the hospital's radiology department was answered almost immediately and without questions by GE Medical Systems. The supplier delivered a mobile CT scanner within 24 hours.
Similarly, GE shipped portable X-ray machines and C-arms-which provide visual images during surgery-to 2,346-bed New York-Presbyterian Hospital at no cost to the hospital, said William Greene, its vice president of operations. Eastman Kodak Co. sent a team of engineers to provide round-the-clock troubleshooting for Kodak imaging equipment on-site.
In general, New York hospitals reported they were not wanting for anything-except patients who survived the disaster.
"Certainly we are coping well because the tragedy here is that we don't have any more patients to care for," said Gail Donovan, chief operating officer for Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
-With Mark Taylor