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Neighbors helping neighbors: The Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank and what it does may be among Bemidji’s best-kept secrets

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Medical lab technician Lisa Fulth preps donor David Sauer, who says he’s donated more than 19 gallons of blood at the Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank at Sanford Health, while in the background, lab tech Carol Bjelland assists Vickie Gutknecht. 1 / 3
MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Lab Trainee Gregory Smith begins the testing process of a sample of blood.2 / 3
MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Screener Alison Petrovski interviews Rtia Malterud before she donates blood at the Blood Donor Room at Sanford Health. 3 / 3

The “M*A*S*H”  television series began in 1972 and ran 11 seasons. It was based around the daily hell the doctors, nurses and patients encountered at a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War.

Life wasn’t pretty. Every day soldiers from both sides were brought to the hospital via jeep, helicopter or any means possible, and every day the surgeons tried to keep the soldiers alive.

There was never a shortage of patients. At times, however, there was a shortage of stored blood. During those lean periods, all of the able-bodied personnel would be asked to donate a pint. And when the doctors and patients faced an emergency situation, the donors would be asked to give again, even if their own circulatory systems hadn’t yet recovered from the last time they were tapped.

Many lives were saved in that television hospital because of the blood donors. And lives continue to be saved today by those who are willing to donate.

In 2012, patients at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center who suffered from a variety of illnesses and injuries including cancer, severe anemia, post-surgical procedures and accidents, required 1,937 units of blood. Some of those units came from the stocks of the United Blood Service, but more than half of them were provided by those who donated at Bemidji’s Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank (MHBB).

“There is no shortage of users,” said MHBB Executive Director Peggy Hadrava. “But there is a shortage of donors.”

The Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank and what it does may be among Bemidji’s best-kept secrets. Some people new to the area actively seek a location where they can donate blood (MHBB is located at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and accepts donations every Wednesday starting at noon). Others either don’t know of the organization or decide that donating blood is not something they want to do.

Carol Berg belongs to the former group.

Berg has been a member of the MHBB board of directors since the early 1970s and currently is the board’s chairwoman. She has been a blood donor since the 1960s and remembers a time when she was called more often than two or three times a year which is the current standard.

“In the 1970s, I remember getting phone calls at 2 a.m. after a car accident or some other emergency,” Berg said. “I’m B-positive and when they needed B-positive blood, to the hospital I went. It was nice that I was able to do that but now, with the regulations we have to follow, it doesn’t happen that way anymore.”

Emergency calls in the middle of the night are not part of the federal government’s blood-donation plan. Because of the emergence of certain diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis C, all blood used for transfusions now must undergo thorough testing. And the blood that passes that screening becomes even more important to have on hand.

“Bemidji has become a regional center and because of that the need for blood in the Bemidji area is on the increase,” Hadrava said.

There are about 600 people who regularly donate at the blood bank. Many live in Bemidji but the donors also make the drive from Williams, Big Falls, Mizpah, Northome, Fosston, Lake George, Laporte, Cass Lake Walker and other regional communities.

Unfortunately, that number is dwindling each year because many of the donors are senior citizens and when they no longer can donate there aren’t many people ready to take their place.

Berg is among those who have been forced to the sidelines at the request of her physician but she wishes she could continue to make the trip to the donor room.

“I continued to donate until my doctor told me I shouldn’t,” Berg said. “Donating is a service to our community. Donating is doing something for the betterment of the people in our community. The healthier we are the better we are and blood isn’t just out there. We have to donate it.”

Hadrava has studied the numbers and she is concerned.

“Our biggest problem is that our donors are aging out,” Hadrava said.”We have more donors who are 65 than donors who are in their 30s.

“Donating is a commitment and it does take some time,” Hadrava continued. “You have to make an appointment, go to the hospital and the donation process usually takes about 45 minutes. But for every donation you make you are either extending or improving someone’s life. You are making a 1-on-1 impact.”

MHBB is one of four organizations that accepts blood donations in the Bemidji area but it is the only one which keeps the donated blood in the community. Memorial Blood Center also supplants Bemidji’s requirements but it is based in Minneapolis and has headquarters in Duluth.

United Blood Service and the Red Cross periodically sponsor mobile blood drives in Bemidji area communities but the blood they draw returns to their home bases and is not used in the Bemidji area.

“UBS and Red Cross draw blood and that blood helps people. But it doesn’t help the people here,” Hadrava said.

Blood comes in six different types. The most common is O-positive (39 percent of the population) and the rarest is AB-negative (1 percent). The other types are A-positive (31 percent), O-negative (9 percent), A-negative (9 percent) and AB-positive (3 percent).

People may donate every 56 days and up to five times per year. MHBB officials keep track of the organization’s 600 members and their donation rotations and try to contact them about three times a year.

Hadrava would like to see the donation rotation drop to no more than twice a year.

“Our biggest problem is that we need new donors,” she said. “We need people who are willing to make the commitment. If all they want to do is donate once a year, that would be fine. If they want to donate more than once, that would be great.”

Donations are accepted every Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m. at the donation room in the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. Because of the Christmas and New Year holidays, donations will not be taken on Dec. 25 or Jan. 1 but the donations will resume Jan. 8.

“The Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank was established in the 1950s at the request of the hospital to ensure a reliable, healthy blood source for the hospital,” Hadrava said. “That mission statement hasn’t changed.”

“We have been successful for so long because the community needs us,” Berg added. “We serve the region and the blood we draw stays in Bemidji. We provide the opportunity for neighbors to help neighbors.”

That concept made daily life much better for the television residents of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit during the 1970s and early 1980s. And neighbors helping neighbors has been a backbone tradition for all who live in and around Bemidji.

To make an appointment to donate blood contact the Mississippi Headwaters Blood Bank at 751-2425 or (800(-354-0587. Appointments can be made between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

(218) 333-9200