Overextending Oneself—Two Case Studies in the Blood Bank

One has to learn when enough is enough.  There are times when there are staff shortages but the conscientious staff wants to be the Super-Tech and handle all the work, whether or not there are sufficient resources.  This is a big gamble, and there may be serious consequences for the over-achiever and for the patient.

Anecdote #1:  Chicago Blizzard of 1979 (13-14 January):

When I was in my residency training in Chicago, I was in the blood bank during the blizzard of January, 1979.  The following tragedy occurred.

Suse was one of the best blood bank technologists that I have ever known, extremely conscientious and very meticulous—and very fast at doing things.  She was a workaholic.  Suse’s whole life centered on her job at our academic medical center—so much so that she had an apartment near the hospital complex.  In mid-January, a snow storm was predicted with an estimated snowfall of about 5 cm. total.  Actually, that night a blizzard developed and around a meter of snow fell with white-out conditions and zero visibility.  Preoperative patients had been admitted the night before based on the low snowfall prediction.

The next day was chaos.  Essentially only staff who lived near the hospital complex could report to work.  Suse came in and saw all the pending preoperative blood requests.  She decided to “double-up” and work on two cases at one time.  In the rush, she mixed up test tubes and issued ABO-incompatible blood for a surgical case.  The surgeon noted the abnormal oozing of blood at the operative site and stopped the transfusion.  Hematuria developed, but the patient survived.

Suse was suspended pending investigation.  Based on her excellent work record, she was offered to return to work.  Unfortunately, she became very depressed and was afraid to return since she feared she would make another mistake.  She never worked in the blood bank again.

Anecdote #2:  Shortage of Blood at Major Hospital:

1991 in another country, a large hospital complex was suffering a shortage of blood.  A large number of donors were called and the available staff were overwhelmed with work.  One donor phlebotomist decided to collect whole blood from two different donors simultaneously and in the confusion, mixed up the sample tubes for donor marker testing.

Unfortunately, one of those donors was HBsAg positive, but with the specimen mix-up was marked as negative.  The unit of blood was transfused, and the recipient developed fulminant hepatitis B and died.


In both these systems, there were processes in effect not to work on two patient specimens or collect two donors at one time, but the staff took short-cuts.

No one is super-human.  Don’t try to cut corners and handle more than one patient at a time.  Your intention may be good, but you will be judged by the consequences.  No one will care about the extenuating circumstances.  You will be blamed.  I tell my staff that if they cannot handle the workload, they should contact me as the Division Head, Transfusion Medicine, to triage the cases for them.  My role is to bring these events to the higher authorities to get the resources we need to do the work properly and safely.