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Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank: Local blood bank celebrates 50 years of keeping hospital with healthy supply of blood

Daniel Johnson, chairman of the board of trustees for the Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank, has his blood drawn at North Country Regional Hospital. Ellen Best, left, a medical lab technician, assists. Pioneer Photo/ Anne Williams

The invention of artificial blood has yet to be discovered. There simply is no replacement for blood.

So, in keeping up with high demand for blood reserves, the Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank has spent the last 50 years providing a healthy supply of blood for the North Country Regional Hospital.

The MHBB is unique in that it keeps all useable blood donations in the community. It has done so since 1959, when it was organized by the Ralph Gracie American Legion Post.

Romaine "Red" Wilson of Bemidji was second vice president when the blood bank was established. For 50 years Wilson has been a part of maintaining the MHBB operations. He is currently president today, although he plans to officially retire March 13.

He recalled the earlier days when the Legion depended on a "walking blood bank."

"Whenever they needed blood, they called you," Wilson said. "We had about 20 guys on the list back then. Whenever they called, sometimes at 2-3 a.m. in the morning, you got up to donate blood."

Today, medical facilities in the area have advanced from a little hospital to a regional medical center. With its increase, so too, has the hospital's need for blood.

At least 20 different derivatives are taken out of an average blood sample today. Fifty years ago, blood was typically only tested for sexually transmitted diseases and blood type.

Eventually, increased safety protocols, testing standards and high turnover of expensive medical equipment made it so that it wasn't cost effective for the MHBB to test the blood.

Today Memorial Blood Centers of Minneapolis provides blood services and specialized laboratory services to NCRH.

As part of the agreement, Memorial Blood Centers collaborates with the MHBB on blood recruitment and marketing in the greater Bemidji area to assist with recruiting donors for the hospital.

Getting people to donate blood is a group effort, but for the past two decades, the process has started with Peggy Hadrava, coordinator of the donor list for MHBB. Her part-time job is one of only two paid positions through the MHBB.

Hadrava said in some ways, her job hasn't changed all that much, but she has noticed her donor base has decreased.

Four blood banks currently draw blood from the Bemidji area. According to Hadrava, none of the blood drawn from the other banks is used directly in the Bemidji area, with the exception of Memorial Blood Centers.

"In the long run, we all have the same goal - an adequate and healthy blood supply for all people," Hadrava said. "Even though the Red Cross doesn't help the people at NCRH, people are still being helped."

Taking blood from local donors and keeping a healthy supply of that blood locally, Hadrava said, helps keep the costs down.

"It grew for years. And then it quit growing and now we're trying to build it back up again," Wilson said. "It used to be that, we got big enough so that about every two years you got called (to donate); now it's about once a year."

The MHBB provides 50 percent of the blood supply to the NCRH, which is about 1,000-1,200 units of blood a year.

"Having those donors available is critical because we're all volunteers," said Dan Johnson, MHBB chairman of the board of trustees. "Basically, by finding the donors for the blood bank, that's how we fund the dollars to keep our operations going."

Johnson said blood donors not only help patients at the hospital, but they help the MHBB have a positive impact on the community.

MHBB paid for NCRH's first dialysis machine and has since purchased two more.

"This was extremely important," Johnson said. "Before, people had to go all the way to Fargo. Now there are 13 dialysis machines here. They are in use all the time."

By establishing its own foundation, MHBB is self-sufficient, and doesn't have to seek money from outside in order to maintain it.

MHBB is the second highest donor to NCRH behind North Country Health Services Foundation. They have given monetary donations of over $20,000 and over $35,800 to Bemidji State University through scholarships or equipment.

Johnson said one of his goals is to provide the Headwaters Science Center with an interactive exhibit to teach kids about blood.

Hadrava said she has given more than seven gallons of blood since 1991.

"Only 4 percent of people who are healthy enough to donate actually do donate, which is tragic," she said. "Yet, at the same time, I have donors who drive down from Waskish or Williams to donate on a regular basis. People who live in Bemidji can come in and go home in an hour."

Her job, she said, has given her a new look at blood donations.

"I see this circle," she said. "I've seen cases where I know that the donor knows the recipient. They'll never know because everything is confidential, but I know that."

Blood is drawn by appointment at the NCRH blood bank. Appointments can be made through the MHBB office by phoning 751-2425 or 800-354-0587. Drop-ins are welcome during donor room hours, which are between noon and 6:45 p.m. Wednesdays.

"People should not make assumptions that they cannot give blood," Johnson said. "There are a lot of medications that do not cause any trouble."

"It is not painful. It is very quick," Johnson said of drawing blood. "And it is important."