Blood transfusions now available on LifeFlight helicopters

January 20, 2012 4:55:50 PM PST
When lives are on the line and every second counts, that's when LifeFlight is called in to transport patients. But did you know that, until recently, there was no way to give a lifesaving blood transfusion on those flights? It was generous Houstonian's donation that changed that.

Anyone who's been severely injured or who's faced death in an accident knows that the sound of a LifeFlight helicopter nearby is an answer to prayer.

LifeFlight now has a new, high-tech fleet of helicopters to transport critically ill, and all six new helicopters have a Doppler radar in a mini-weather station, making landings safer. It has the latest medical equipment. But if you needed a lifesaving blood transfusion, that, it didn't have.

"The main issue has to do with money," said LifeFlight founder and medical director Dr. Red Duke.

Dr. Duke, who created the program three decades ago, says they always wanted to carry blood onboard.

"In these terrible injuries that have been occurring, that there survival is significantly improved by this early intervention with blood products," he said.

But blood products only last a short time so it never happened. Then a severely injured patient, whose close friend was killed, asked that question one more time: Why is no blood onboard?

"Nobody had blood on helicopters, even in Afghanistan and Vietnam and other places, so the issue initially was some money," Walter Johnson said.

That patient donated the money -- a quarter of a million dollars -- for freezers, refrigerators and warning sensors. Now all LifeFlight helicopters carry blood all the time. They can quickly warm the refrigerated blood. They take the blood and run it through a little warmer that looks much like a flat iron. Then it goes right into the body.

They've given blood to 25 patients and counting.

"You're actually able to stop the bleeding," LifeFlight nurse Clint Kneuven said.

How many lives will be saved? UTHealth trauma surgeon Dr. John Holcomb says they're studying that to find out.

"What we're doing is obviously tracking that to see. It's our impression it's really helped patients a lot," Holcomb said.

And what they learn here, is likely to become the norm for air ambulances in this country and the US military.

Many people wonder how they know your blood type. Well, they don't have to, because they give O-negative blood, and anybody can safely receive it.