Saluting lab techs – vital in blood supply chain

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross volunteer

Patient safety is the number one priority for the blood services arm (no pun intended) of the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross collects about 40% of our nation’s blood supply from donors like me – and you, I hope. We give this lifesaving liquid freely, so it’s available as soon as someone – usually someone we don’t even know – needs it to treat an illness or traumatic injury, or for replacement during surgery.

Blood that’s meant for transfusion must be free from anything that could harm a patient. That includes a host of foreign substances like viruses, bacteria or parasites.

Celeste Dean-El, who heads the Red Cross Immunohematology Reference Lab (IRL) in Cleveland, said blood also has inherited characteristics that could trigger a bad reaction, or enhance its benefit, in a recipient.

That’s where laboratory technicians come in, she said. Lab techs test every unit of donated blood, to be sure it’s wholesome and robust, and to identify unique components that will make a given unit a match for a transfusion recipient.

Most of us know our inherited blood group: A, B or O, positive or negative. Getting the wrong ABO match could kill a patient, Celeste said. But our blood also has what’s called an Rh protein; getting that match wrong could make a patient very, very sick.

Lab technician Paul Kopin and Celeste Dean-El, Director of the Immunohematology Reference Lab for the Red Cross of Northern Ohio

Lab technicians also perform specialized tests to unearth even more unique inherited characteristics that – if properly matched – will enhance the benefit and safety of a transfusion.

Celeste offered an example: A man from Ohio’s Amish community needed treatment recently after a serious injury. Lab techs isolated an antibody in his blood that made his type so rare that compatible units would only be found in others of his community. Based on that information, the Red Cross recruited donors from that group to find “matches” that would boost his recovery.

“Transfusions are the most important and most common treatments in hospitals,” Celeste said, listing things like leukemia and lymphoma – diseases that can cause very low blood counts in patients.

Or take sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder. A patient – typically someone of African descent – will need regular transfusions of the blood component hemoglobin to supplement her blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Lab techs can test for antigens in each patient’s blood to make the transfusion impact as strong as possible or, in some cases, avoid life-threatening transfusion reactions.

Lab technicians are positioned at a critical point in the blood supply chain, so their training and certification is demanding: two to four years of specialized education and internship. “Experience in the lab is vital,” Celeste said. To work in her IRL takes another one to two years of highly complex training.

The Red Cross salutes Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, April 23 through 29, to recognize the vital work lab techs perform for our blood supply.

“Everything we do is for the safety of the recipients,” Celeste said.

To be part of this lifesaving service, sign up to donate blood at Because “help can’t wait.”