Bloodworks Northwest: A Concise History

Bloodworks Northwest: A Concise History

In appreciation: Bloodworks Northwest gratefully acknowledges the research and contribution of Eugene Smith in preparing this historical overview and update as we prepare to celebrate our 75th anniversary in 2018.

Blood: A Community Answers the Call

In 2015, Puget Sound Blood Center became Bloodworks Northwest: a new name to better capture the scope, reach and breadth of medical, lab and healthcare services of an organization founded more than 70 years earlier.

It was 1944 with the Second World War still raging. If you were involved in a serious car accident or in a Seattle hospital needing a transfusion during surgery, you were in huge trouble. A request might go out to your immediate family for a compatible donor. Since blood couldn’t be stored for long, you might instead have to wait until a paid donor with your blood type was found, and their blood collected and processed. That could take up to eight hours or more, and only could be done at a few hospitals. You might be deceased before you could be transfused.

Blood for transfusion was often difficult or impossible to obtain because there was no group collecting donations or any central source of supply. To solve this problem, local physician Dr. Eugene Potter proposed a county-wide blood bank. Volunteer donors would give blood to create a local inventory of already-typed blood, backed up with a system for quickly getting those units to hospitals and patients who needed them.

With help from other physicians, community and business leaders, Dr. Potter’s vision became a reality. As the first president of the King County Central Blood Bank (KCCBB), Dr. Potter led the establishment of Washington State’s very first blood-supply system – organized, more reliable, efficient, lifesaving and less costly to patients. This was at a time when there were few community blood centers anywhere in the United States.

Shortly before the end of World War II, KCCBB moved into temporary quarters at King County Hospital (now Harborview Medical Center). Construction began on property donated by Dr. and Mrs. S. Maimon Samuels at the corner of Terry and Madison streets: the first building ever designed and dedicated for use as a blood bank. Many businesses and leading families donated money to complete the project. Its doors opened in 1946.

The small, original building had two sections: a one-story donor center, and a two-story annex and laboratory for testing and processing blood. The new community blood bank was called on to perform two vital functions. First, to collect and distribute blood to patients in hospitals across the region without regard to a patient’s income or social status. And second – because transfusion was a relatively new medical procedure – the center took a leadership role in spearheading research to extend the shelf-life of blood components, to improve transfusion practices and safety, and to help people with bleeding disorders.

Soon recognized as a national leader in blood services, requests flowed in to KCCBB from many other U.S. cities keen to establish their own blood centers as a critical cornerstone of quality healthcare. As patient need for blood grew, innovative ways to collect more blood were necessary, including mobile blood drives. The first “bloodmobile” went into service in the parking lot of the Bellevue Shopping Square in 1955, creating a new way for donors to give blood that was closer to where they lived, worked, shopped, attended school or worshiped. Blood “drives” took on a whole new meaning.

KCCBB was among the first in the nation to introduce the pioneering idea of using plastic bags for blood collection – replacing bulky, heavy, fragile glass bottles then in wide use. By the 1960s and 1970s, discoveries at its own research institute made it possible to extend the shelf life for platelets. This breakthrough eventually made open-heart surgeries and bone marrow transplants for cancer patients possible. The blood center and its research introduced medical innovations into the region, and fostered the growth of what is today a vibrant biomedical community right here in the Northwest.

Growth and success extended the impact of the blood center beyond the boundaries of King County. New donor centers were added in the region. In 1974, KCCBC became Puget Sound Blood Center (PSBC) to reflect that it was now serving hospitals in multiple counties – providing blood services, transfusion expertise and lab testing – all backed up by leading-edge research.

As patient need for blood continued to grow, the original center built in the 1940s could no longer keep pace. In 1981, the center moved to nearby temporary quarters and the old building was razed. Taking advantage of its hillside location, a new structure was created: four underground floors, and six stories fronting Terry Avenue. The new center opened to staff and donors in 1984.

In the early 1980s, the emergence of a then-unknown virus – human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV – roiled the world of blood banking and transfusion. After it was learned that HIV could be transmitted by blood, people receiving transfusion during surgery could become infected. For hemophilia patients receiving blood concentrates from large pools of donated plasma, the tragedy was especially profound. PSBC’s Dr. Rich Counts developed a new form of treatment for hemophilia patients using a single blood donation – resulting in a much lower HIV transmission rate in this region. Eventually, a simple test to identify the presence of HIV in donated blood was developed and implemented. The blood supply was again safe.

PSBC’s reputation for excellence in blood services, transfusion, testing and research fueled even more growth in the 1990s. Several smaller centers in the region decided to join with PSBC, including the centers in Snohomish-Island and Whatcom Counties. A new donor center was opened in Vancouver to serve all hospitals in Clark and Cowlitz Counties. Increasing demand for blood testing and processing triggered expansion to create new, high-efficiency lab facilities in Renton – providing fast, reliable testing for both collected blood as well as for organ and tissue transplant centers in the region.

Growth into Oregon followed in the form of partnerships with the LegacyHealth and Providence Health networks. By 2015, more than half of the blood needed and used by patients in Portland Metro was being provided by Bloodworks Northwest. Lane Blood Center in Eugene also joined the family, effectively extending Bloodworks’ impact from the Canadian border to the California border.

What began as a small blood bank to serve several King County hospitals has become a national center for excellence in blood services, patient care, lab testing and research. It is supported by more than 900 employees, 230,000 volunteer donors and 12 donor centers. It conducts more than 4,400 mobile drives per year with the help of 2,400 dedicated volunteers. It supports nearly 100 hospitals in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Maine and New Hampshire. It includes the Washington Center for Bleeding Disorders that provides personalized care to people with hemophilia.

Today, Bloodworks Research Institute is a national (and international leader) in blood research, with 70 scientists focused on breakthroughs in further extending blood storage, best transfusion practices and treatment for bleeding and blood disorders. Dedicated investigators are making discoveries that are propelling personalized medicine and diagnosis and treatment for the most challenging diseases threatening human health around the world.
We’re getting ready to celebrate our 75th anniversary: an opportunity to reflect on our legacy of advancing medicine, while bringing the best healthcare possible to the people of the Northwest and beyond. That’s Bloodworks. We’d love to have you join us – as a donor, volunteer, financial contributor, drive organizer, research partner or engaged supporter of our mission. Everyone is welcome!

Sources: James R. Warren, A History of the Puget Sound Blood Center, PSBC, 2006; James P AuBuchon, MD; President & CEO, Bloodworks Northwest; Bloodworks Northwest archives.

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