When a Black Hawk helicopter carrying 500 pounds of blood products landed in the parking lot at UTMB’s Galveston Campus on Aug. 29, a wave of relief came over Dr. Barbara Bryant.
“It was carrying very important cargo—12 doses of platelets and 160 units of blood,” said Bryant, medical director of UTMB’s blood bank. “The shipment included a rare type of blood for one of our patients with sickle cell disease, fresh blood for our NICU babies and blood for an intrauterine transfusion.”
Bryant’s relief was shared by many, as Hurricane Harvey presented several obstacles to getting the blood from Indiana to its destination on the island.
Realizing the potential for a blood and platelet shortage in the aftermath of Harvey, Bryant and Health System leadership first worked with partners at the Indiana Blood Center to get the products transported. A charter plane arranged by Premier, Inc. volunteered to fly the blood to Galveston, but was unable to land due to winds and flooding. Instead, the plane landed at the closest open airport, Brazosport Regional Airport, about 45 miles away. The shipment was transported by a high-clearance emergency vehicle to UTMB’s Angleton Danbury Campus, where UTMB Police Sergeant Joel Rivera was tasked with finding a way to get the blood to Galveston.
“It was a race against the clock,” said Rivera, who also helped out at UTMB during Hurricane Ike. “Not just because our patients urgently needed the blood, but I was told that when blood is packaged for shipment, it needs to be delivered within 24 hours.”
With the clock ticking, Rivera and another officer went on a quick reconnaissance mission to see if any roads leading to Galveston were open. About two miles into their drive, they spotted a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper turning traffic around because of high water.
“It was pouring rain when I got out of the car to talk to the trooper,” recalled Rivera. “But if anyone knew about the roadways, it was him.”
Rivera described the urgency, asking if it was possible to use a DPS helicopter for the delivery. While the trooper made a few phone calls, Rivera directed traffic. A few minutes later, the trooper came back and handed Rivera a phone number to a DPS dispatcher who had access to state and federal resources during the storm. Because of the weight of the blood, it was determined that a Black Hawk helicopter would be the best bet for safe transport.
Within an hour, a Black Hawk carrying a crew from the Nebraska National Guard landed in the Angleton Danbury Campus parking lot. They were in between missions to rescue those stranded by the flood waters and happy to help in whatever way they could.
“It worked out great—we ran up with the boxes and loaded them one-by-one and before you knew it, the helicopter was gone and on its way,” said Rivera. “I felt so relieved, knowing how many people would benefit from that blood. As the helicopter lifted off, everyone started high-fiving each other. It was one of those extremely unusual moments where everything just lines up.”
After witnessing the collaboration between local, state and federal agencies, Bryant calls the Black Hawk delivery a “UTMB First.”
“I’ve never seen a Black Hawk deliver blood in a non-combat situation…never!” she said. “This went as smoothly as you could possibly imagine and it was just unfolding right in front of us. Because of this shipment, we were able to provide patients with necessary blood and that was excellent. It took so many people to come together to get this done—I’m so thankful to everyone who did everything they could to make it happen.”