The Right Stuff

There’s a distinct sense of positivity when you visit the North Country Regional Blood Donor Center. Apheresis machines provide a lot of the hum, but the Center’s staff members practically hum too—with an effciency borne of the ease and expertise that comes from doing a job they love.

While phlebotomist Martha Alger checked in on two donors who were giving platelets, apheresis nurse and drive coordinator Nancy Roberts whisked a whole blood donor from her paperwork into a chair, where another staff member, lead phlebotomist Heidi Cormier stepped in to hook the donor up to the machine.

“We have a rule here,” said Roberts. “We don’t make donors wait. Our goal is 20 to 30 minutes from paperwork to cookie.”

Nice People Donate Blood
The Center has a reputation for stellar customer service, and even a budget line for cookies, but when I asked the staff for the secret to their great service, they were modest. They said, simply, “Nice people donate blood.”
Blood donation in the United States is completely voluntary; blood banks like the Donor Center cannot pay or financially compensate donors in any way, which means that donors are there because they truly want to be. Margaret Gruetzmachern explained that she considers donating platelets her community service.

“They’re healthy,” said former blood bank supervisor Jeannine Yanulavich of the donors. “In most medical fields, phlebotomists are drawing blood from someone who doesn’t want to be there because they’re sick, they don’t feel well—and that creates a whole different atmosphere.” In fact, many of the nurses and phlebotomists who work at the Center started their careers on the “inpatient side.” At the Donor Center, they appreciate working in an environment where people are happy to see them.

Secure Blood Supply
Christina Beck, the new blood bank supervisor who has been on the job only a few weeks, said the Donor Center has done something extraordinary. “They’ve created a very loyal donor base. The work the nurses, Jeannine, and our phlebotomists have put in has really ensured a secure blood supply for our community. And if they hadn’t been historically doing such great work, I think we would be looking at a tremendously difficult situation.”

That’s because the center also serves as the main blood bank and supplier of blood products to patients, doctors and nurses at CVPH and three other area hospitals. The next closest blood bank is the Red Cross in Albany. “If someone is bleeding, you can’t wait three hours to get blood,” said Yanulavich.

The unusual donor loyalty the center has fostered is also crucial to the safety of the blood supply. While all units of blood donated go through

FDA-mandated testing for 10–14 different infectious diseases before they can enter the blood bank inventory, there are many diseases for which a test doesn’t yet exist. When donors have a trusting relation- ship with the Center’s staff, they’re far more likely to report illnesses or risks such as travel to countries where new infectious diseases have surfaced. The Center also gives each donor their unit number and a phone number they can call if they don’t feel comfortable reporting such a risk at a public drive among coworkers, or if they begin experience symptoms of an illness that could be passed along.

A Familiar Place
Yanulavich pointed to the smaller size of the Donor Center, and the familiarity that staff and donors enjoy, as reasons for the donation program’s success. In many larger communities, the Red Cross often handles blood drives, but because they’re such a large organization and handle so many donors, their drives can be big and anonymous.
By contrast, the Plattsburgh Center is open for walk-in appointments Monday through Friday, and the staff schedules one or two small drives at familiar regional sponsor locations every weekday, with repeat drives scheduled every eight weeks—the length of time donors must wait between donations of whole blood. That means staff and donors have 10 or 15 minutes every eight weeks to develop strong, long-term relationships. “They’re like your hairdresser,” said Yanulavich of the phlebotomists and nurses. “They remember everything!”

The nurses at the Donor Center know exactly what regular donors like and how they like to be recognized. “If you look at some of the donors’ charts,” said Yanulavich, “you’ll see the little notes that the nurses have written, such as, ‘Likes to have a blanket while donating,’ so they know what to have ready when that donor comes in.”
With new donors, the staff will talk about completely unrelated topics, or ask unexpected questions to get them to relax. They’re also particularly skilled at explaining the whole process to donors old and new. “When a donor knows how important their blood is, I think it makes them more likely to come back,” Yanulavich observed.

Beck noted that the United States as a whole is struggling with maintaining loyal donors. “The Baby Boom population and older have historically been extremely regular donors, but we’re not seeing it as much with Millennials and younger generations. There’s a lot of work within the industry needed to figure out how to ensure we have donors moving forward. Part of that is making sure we get our mobile drives out to colleges and high schools, to encourage the habit of donating early so that the pattern continues.”

As new groups of students become eligible to donate each school year, the Donor Center offers visits by staff to high school health classes. They explain what happens during the donation and what students can expect, and who benefits—why it’s good to donate blood. As a result, the Center has seen kids who donated for the first time in high school and who continue to come back.

At the Blood Bank at CVPH, there’s an equally positive environment and the requisite hum of machines that process and store the bank’s blood stores. Lab technicians share the same sense of positivity as their coworkers at the Donor Center located near Hannaford Plaza, but they have an added sense of purpose and intensity. They’ll jump at an opportunity to show a reporter a platelet “swirl.”

In addition to testing and processing the donated units as they enter Blood Bank inventory, the technicians serve as the first point of contact for their customers—the doctors and nurses who need blood for their patients at CVPH, Alice Hyde, Adirondack Medical Center, and Massena Memorial Hospital.

The technicians continually monitor the supply, keeping track of what types of blood products are available or in need, and they do the crucial blood typing on patient blood samples in order to determine what type of blood the patient can safely receive. In fact, the lab technicians are the blood bank experts on the types of plasma and red blood cells medical staff can use for their patients. Their main responsibility is to get the appropriate blood product to the patient on time, while letting the medical staff know why it is the appropriate product for that situation.

Good communication skills are critical, because their interactions with the medical staff usually take place at the moments that are most critical in a patient’s care—when every second feels like an hour. Monique Durocher-Hart, Blood Bank medical technologist said, “Time speeds up and it slows down.” The perception of time for the doctors and nurses is different because they may be watching a patient bleed out. Meanwhile, back in the Blood Bank, the technicians are supplying that blood while at the same time determining what blood type is safe for the patient’s particular blood type helping medical staff troubleshoot transfusion reactions, tracking how many units are available, and how many might need to be reserved for other situations. The technicians have to monitor how much blood they have, how much they need, and when and from where more is coming.

“While our donors and phlebotomists are the basis for what we do at the Blood Bank,” said Beck, “what we ask our technicians to do saves lives. When they get a call from the floor, someone’s life is in the balance.”

“As a Donor Center and a Blood Bank, we have customers who aren’t just donors,” said Beck. “They’re patients, they’re hospitals, they’re nurses, and they’re physicians. So customer service is a matter of figuring out what each of those groups needs from us and developing our processes and systems around that.”