US forces set up blood bank, save Italian woman’s life

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nick Wilson
  • 435th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

At times, it can be a challenge to maintain sufficient blood banks in austere locations, due to diseases and complications, distance, lack of refrigeration and lack of proper storage facilities.

Recently, in the Sahel region of Africa at Nigerien Air Base 101, U.S. service members beat the odds to set up a walking blood bank alongside their Italian, French, and German counterparts to save an Italian civilian’s life. The woman involved in the car accident suffered life-threatening injuries.

Fortunately, deployed U.S. service members were able to remedy the situation and provide much-needed expertise in the nick of time.

“Based on our initial assessment of the patients vital signs, combined with the imaging findings, the GST activated the Walking Blood Bank which was executed together by the AOB and EABS medical team as we felt she would likely need massive transfusion performing surgery to identify her injuries,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Nicholas McKenzie, Special Operations Command Forward - North and West Africa ground surgical team’s general surgeon. “The patient’s clinical improvement following transfusion was dramatic. The walking blood bank gave us critical tools, which undoubtedly had a positive impact on this patient's survival.”

The setup of the walking blood bank required a two-person 768th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron medical team to collaborate with multiple military agencies on base from France, Italy, Germany, and Niger.

“It was a very, very long day,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Justin Tingey, 768th EABS flight doctor. “We got the call at about 8:30 in the morning. By the time the patient left the facility here from our ground surgical team, it was a little bit after 2am in the morning.”

The process of setting up the blood bank began at around 8pm. With assistance from augmentees with medical experience from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, the 768th EABS medical team was able to draw five pints of blood from five volunteer blood donors.

“Two units were given to the individual at the initiation of surgery,” Tingey said. “The other three units were saved in case they were needed during the air evacuation to the final destination when the patient left.”

One aspect of the process that made the blood bank a success was the fact that the 768th EABS had augmentees, including a Navy Corpsman with experience in setting up a walking blood bank, who helped train the team and run the blood bank.

“We also had several other individuals where their military job isn’t medical, however they are guard or reserve members that are registered nurses out in the civilian world,” Tingey said. “Some of the civilian side here are retired military with medical expertise.  So even though there are only two of us filling medical billets or medical slots here deployed, we have a hand full of folks that actually are medically trained personnel.”

The ground surgical team recognized a U.S. Navy Sailor who proved to be one of the key players in making the surgery a success. Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Bryan Killings, an augmentee was just passing through Air Base 101 on the way to another country.

Killings was finishing up a normal day at the base dining facility, when he received a text message that changed the course of his night.

“My leadership told me they had a patient coming through and they needed me to assist them,” Killings said. “They said they needed A-positive blood.”

Plans were set in motion from the ground surgical team, to Killings, to the 768th EABS medical team. The only challenge was the equipment. It was different from what the 768th team was accustomed to working with.

That’s where Killings and his expertise came in handy. He was able to relax the team during a time of emergency and high stress by stepping in to provide much-needed training.

“I told them I do this every day. It’s what I do,” Killings said. “It feels good to know that my training was put to good use.”

U.S. Navy Corpsmen don’t work alongside U.S. Airmen very often, according to Killings. This was a rare opportunity for him to gain experience working in a joint force environment.

“Killings jumped in and immediately started training helpers,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Lou Campbell, U.S. Special Operations Command Forward - North and West Africa ground surgical team medical administrator. “They got the walking blood bank organized and provided on-the-spot training to support the donations of blood.”

During this scenario, a young Sailor was able to aid Airmen in a joint force team to save a life. He also played a critical role in strengthening bilateral military-to-military relations among multiple countries, all of which included service members deployed to a third-world region.

The total time frame of the blood bank process from start to finish was about two hours, Tingey said.

“It was an event that we would have preferred never to have happened, but it was an event that brought six different countries together,” Tingey said. “I think all of the nations performed well, given the circumstances that we were dealing with. Every single one of them stepped up and coordinated. It worked great.” 

(Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three-part series on how U.S. service members recently provided life-saving medical care for a female Italian civilian at Nigerien Air Base 101.)