Montana Creates Emergency ‘Drive-Thru’ Blood Pickup Service for Rural Ambulances

Crystal Hiwalker wonders if her heart and lungs would have kept working if the ambulance crew had been able to give her a transfusion as the blood drained from her body during a stormy, 100-mile ride

Because of the 2019 snowstorm, it took 2.5 hours to drive from her small town of Lame Deer, Montana, to the advanced trauma center in Billings.

Doctors at the Billings Clinic hospital revived Hiwalker and stopped the bleeding from her ruptured ectopic pregnancy. They were shocked that she not only survived after her heart stopped beating and she lost nearly all her blood, but that she recovered without brain damage.

The Montana State Trauma Care Committee, which works to reduce trauma incidents and to improve care, later realized the ambulance that carried Hiwalker had passed near two hospitals that stocked blood. What if Hiwalker had access to that blood on her way to Billings, committee members asked.

That realization, and question, inspired committee members to create the Montana Interfacility Blood Network, which they say is the first program of its kind in the U.S. The network allows ambulance crews to pick up blood from hospitals and transfuse it to patients on the way to the advanced care they need.

“We kind of came up with the idea of having a blood handoff — like driving through a fast-food restaurant drive-thru — and picking up blood on the way,” said Gordon Riha, a trauma surgeon at the Billings Clinic trauma center, where Hiwalker was treated. Riha said timely blood transfusions can prevent death or permanent brain injury.

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