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Blood on board: New program makes blood products available on Vancouver Island air ambulance

When a patient is bleeding heavily, every second counts.
Critical care paramedic with blood supplies next to BC Ambulance helicopter
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​Critical care paramedic Brian Gill

​Thanks to a new partnership with Island Health, a BCEHS air ambulance based in Parksville now has blood products on board at all times, making it possible for critical care paramedics to give patients blood transfusions while they’re being transported to hospital. 

“If somebody's critically injured and they're an hour away from hospital, it makes a huge difference if we can get blood into them right away,” says Kevin Lambert, Critical Care Paramedic and Paramedic Practice Educator for Vancouver Island. “Blood carries oxygen throughout the body and a blood transfusion can save life and limb for people who are experiencing severe blood loss.”  

Blood products have been available full-time on air ambulances based at Vancouver International Airport for several years. The expansion of the program to Vancouver Island will be particularly important for patients in rural and remote areas, who face a longer journey to hospital. 

“There a number of challenges involved with keeping blood products outside of a hospital setting,” says Bob Penhale, unit chief of Station 180. “Blood products have to be stored at the right temperature and used within a fairly short period of time in order to ensure viability. We knew that being able to provide blood transfusions on air ambulances would make a huge difference to patients. Thanks to our partners at Island Health, and to those who donated the blood in the first place, we’ve been able to make this a reality.” 

Paramedic and lab technologist with bag of blood productsThe blood is prepared by laboratory technologists at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and kept in temperature-controlled coolers aboard the air ambulance. If the blood isn’t used within four days, it’s returned to the hospital, so it doesn’t go to waste. 
Bob is a critical care paramedic, who regularly flies across the Vancouver Island region to reach the most critically ill and injured patients, so he knows from personal experience how many people will benefit from having faster access to blood transfusions. 

“These blood products will help patients with all kinds of severe injuries,” says Bob, “from people hurt in motor vehicle accidents to hikers who have fallen to people with gunshot wounds. There are also medical causes of severe bleeding and those patients could also benefit from transfusion.   I’ve been a paramedic for over 30 years, and I still see new circumstances in which people have suffered injury and find themselves in need of a blood product.”

The Parksville-based air ambulance responds to emergencies all over Vancouver Island and surrounding islands, including to many communities that are a long journey from the nearest hospital. Bob, Kevin and their colleagues are happy to have the blood products ready to go as we head into the warmer months when serious accidents in the back country and other remote locations become more common.
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