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Health and Fitness

The Navy's Blood Source: Taking Care of Our Own

Blood Donations prove useful for more than just traumatic events

When something catastrophic affects the world, people take notice; donating money, food and time to those affected. But there is often something people don't think about donating; something that can save a life when the catastrophic event is more personal, sometimes affecting just one person - blood.

"I think the general public imagines their blood being used for traumatic events like accidents, shootings, disasters or for operative procedures," said Chief Hospital Corpsman (Ret.) Karen M. Reyes Benzi, an oncology registered nurse. "However, I would like people to know, on behalf of the folks I care for, that blood donations assist in not just saving a life but in providing a better quality of life for everyday patients."

As an oncology nurse who administers blood product transfusions every day, Benzi said that blood product donations are of the utmost importance to saving the lives of cancer and hematology patients, preparing them for chemotherapy, radiation and surgical procedures. For many of the leukemics who are transfused at her hospital weekly, new blood is what is keeping them alive. There are times when their local blood bank doesn't have the products they need and they have to search banks further out. Benzi said it is imperative that people donate when they can; it makes all the difference for someone.

"Without blood products, our sickle cell anemia patients would die at an earlier age ... our cancer patients would not be able to endure the side effects of their disease or treatments ... our patients would be short of breath, weak, debilitated, and perhaps die prematurely," said Benzi, who spent 25 years as a Navy corpsman. "Every day I witness someone getting another day and perhaps a better day because of a transfusion - I have many older patients with myelodysplasia syndrome (MDS) - News anchor Robyn Roberts had this cured with a bone marrow transplant- whose day-to-day life depends on frequent (sometimes several times a week) transfusions."

Benzi said it is important for donors to know that their blood will make it to the right place and will be appreciated by someone who may have never thought they'd need it.

"We had a young female professional, an office manager for a law firm, type A negative and always on the go," said Benzi. "She had profuse vaginal bleeding for months but said she was too busy to go to her OBGYN. When she finally went she was told she had a few huge fibroid tumors causing the bleeding. Her hemoglobin (carries oxygen on a red blood cell) was critical at 5 (normal is 12-16.) She received four units of packed red blood cells and spent more than two days in out outpatient clinic. She finally realized how crappy she had been feeling because she now had more energy. Continued low hemoglobin like that could have killed her by depriving her heart of oxygen. The transfusion also prepared her for her hysterectomy. She is doing great and is a strong advocate for blood donations."

For some patients, when chemotherapy and/or radiation is no longer a curative option, or when anemia has become a chronic side effect, blood products may be given as a palliative (comfort, not curative) treatment, said Benzi. It can enhance energy, relieve fatigue and shortness of breath, prolong life, and even prevent a heart attack or stroke. At times it may even be what is needed to give a hospice patient a few more quality days to enjoy a special event, such as a loved one's wedding.

The Armed Services Blood Program (ASBP) provides quality blood products for service members, veterans and their families in both peace and war. As a joint operation among the military services, the ASBP has many components working together to collect, process, store, distribute and transfuse blood worldwide.

January is blood donation month. Consider taking the time to donate lifesaving blood today.