Peek Inside a Bank Full of Priceless Gifts

By Kara Gavin | December 22, 2022 |

Blood banks need a constant supply of deposits to meet the needs of patients with cancer, traumatic injuries, failing organs, blood diseases, and more.

Deep inside the main University of Michigan hospital lies a gleaming new bank, devoted to handling priceless treasure and storing it safely.

It takes in hundreds of deposits a day and releases nearly as many withdrawals – including many so urgent that a life hangs in the balance, with minutes to spare.

Tens of thousands of people a year entrust their most personal gifts to it.

Tens of thousands more rely on it for survival.

But this bank is no ordinary savings and loan, or credit union. There are no ATMs, ballpoint pens on chains or lollipops. It does, however, have pneumatic tubes and vaults.

This is the Michigan Medicine Blood Bank, which recently opened in a brand new facility that took six years to plan. It replaces a cramped 36-year-old space just next door in University Hospital.

Robertson Davenport, M.D., director of transfusion medicine and professor of pathology, isn’t afraid to call it one of the best blood banks in the country.

In fact, he’s been hearing from blood bank teams across the nation, asking for information on how to make their facilities as modern and efficient.

But no matter how many state-of-the-art machines and well-trained professionals this Blood Bank has, it’s worthless without one thing: Donated blood collected from generous individuals.

“Our patients receive 30,000 units of red blood cells, 15,000 units of platelets, and 7,000 units of plasma every year, from cancer and organ transplant patients, to those who have been in vehicle crashes or were born with blood disorders such as sickle cell disease,” said Davenport. “We absolutely understand that every unit is one individual blood donor who, out of the goodness of their heart, has given a gift to someone they will never know, and will be saving their life.”


"We absolutely understand that every unit is one individual blood donor who, out of the goodness of their heart, has given a gift to someone they will never know and will be saving their life." Robertson Davenport, M.D.

Right now, he’s concerned that the holidays and the rise of multiple respiratory viruses at once will make the blood supply unstable in early 2023.

In early 2022, when the omicron surge of COVID-19 cases was in full swing, the American Red Cross declared its first-ever Blood Emergency. The Blood Bank’s shelves were startingly bare.

While the supply has leveled out since then, a special task force from across Michigan Medicine has been working on a plan for how to triage blood use during shortages and make the most of the supply at all times.

The recent move by the United States Food and Drug Administration to expand the pool of people who can donate blood will also help, Davenport notes.

For instance, people who have lived or traveled extensively in the United Kingdom and France are no longer barred from giving, and those who have lived in or traveled to parts of the world where malaria is common now have a much shorter waiting period before they can give blood. So do people who have received tattoos or piercings in recent months.

There have also been some changes to past restrictions on people who engage in certain sexual practices, such as men who have had sex with men in the past. Davenport notes that the FDA has said it will consider even more changes to these rules, based on results of a clinical study.

Every expansion of donation eligibility, and every blood drive hosted by a local business, church, school, club or local government, helps keep supplies steady.

And that’s critical. At any given time, the Blood Bank’s temperature-controlled “vaults” hold nearly 200 units of red blood cells and 50 units of blood platelets, plus other blood products. Those supplies are perishable, with only days or weeks of viable use.

The bank team communicates daily with regional blood suppliers to make sure there’s enough on hand for both scheduled care like C-section births and chemotherapy infusions, and for unpredictable demands such as trauma care, organ transplant operations, and starting critically ill patients on life-support system known as ECMO. Some operations can use a dozen units of blood products or more.

Doctors from across the state and nation also send patients to Michigan Medicine who can’t receive just any blood in the well-known A, B, or O groups.

A specially equipped room within the bank allows highly trained team members to determine exactly which kind of blood product is compatible with such patients’ rare types, to avoid dangerous reactions when they receive a transfusion. The new Blood Bank has giant rapid-typing machines that automate the process of cataloging the subtypes of blood in the daily deliveries.

Oh, and the Blood Bank’s pneumatic tubes?

They stretch a bit farther than the ones at a regular bank’s drive-through lanes.

These tubes can send units of blood within the walls of the University Hospital, and into the nearby C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Frankel Cardiovascular Center, and Rogel Cancer Center buildings, at the press of a button.

And each time one of those cylindrical containers comes to a halt on a hospital floor or near an operating room, that means a life might be saved.

But it also means the bank needs a new deposit – from yet another generous donor.

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